Local couple’s documentary shows how music liberated country from totalitarian existence

The documentary "The Singing Revolution" tells the story of the people of Estonia as they struggled
Jim Tusty and Maureen Castle Tusty are shown during the filming of "The Singing Revolution."
Jim Tusty and Maureen Castle Tusty are shown during the filming of "The Singing Revolution."

It began long ago when he heard stories about Estonia from his immigrant father. But for Jim Tusty of Averill Park, the adventure began in earnest in 1986 when he and his sister visited his father’s native land.

By 1999, Tusty, the former owner of Mountainview Productions in Albany, was in Estonia teaching classes in filmmaking. By 2001, he and his wife, Maureen Castle, knew they were on to something. “We were blown away by it,” says Tusty. It was an inspiration, a journey, and a uniquely monumental happening worth more than an anecdote or two. It was, adds Tusty, “a great story that deserved to be told.”

That story of a country’s people overthrowing a totalitarian regime through the power of song at first seems like a Pollyannaish concept, more suited to mushy melodrama than documentary film. But it was all too real for a first-generation American and his wife to ignore.

And so they began their work in earnest, documenting the events, recording the songs, filming the happenings, assembling archival footage and, most important, interviewing those who witnessed the flourishing of “the singing revolution” — some of them national heroes. “The Singing Revolution” became the title of the couple’s documentary film, which opens today at the Spectrum in Albany. (They will be at the theater to answer questions after tonight’s first showing.)

Understandable attitude

“At first, they regarded us with skepticism,” recalls Tusty. Eventually they began to say, “All right, we see you are serious.”

“That was their predominant attitude,” adds Castle, who grew up in Wynantskill. “They were afraid we would not get the story right,” and beyond that there was a kind of an inferiority complex rooted in humility. Estonia, the Baltic country of 1 million was too small for anyone else to care about.

The natives’ qualms seemed understandable. Since they were conquered in the Crusades in the 13th century, Estonia was used and abused by conquerors. In 1939, the Germans plundered the land. Stalin later sent a half million Russians to live in a land that was not theirs, in the process banishing natives to Siberia. Many never returned.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that things changed, thanks to music. The Estonians’ only weapon against the Soviet regime was the power of song, the artillery of tunes that resonated in their very bones and soared mightily in their hearts and minds. Tusty is quick to point out that this was no Gandhian revolution. Nor was anyone invoking the memory of Thoreau. If the Estonians had enough guns and people, they would have declared war. Aside from guerrilla action, they had, through the centuries, amassed what Tusty calls “a calculated patience — a creative, democratic alternative borne of endurance and practicality.”

Determined to win

It was not docility but a resolve that seemed to shout out in unison, “We will win no matter what.” That sentiment resounded with the citizens’ rendition of “Land of My Fathers, Land That I Love.” The power of those and other nationality-based songs sung in the public square by crowds of more than 30,000 between 1986 and 1991 under the disapproving eyes of conquerors provided solace, inspiration, and finally, victory.

Among the Estonian qualities worth extolling are patience, one of the highest literacy rates in the world and 2 percent unemployment. But when it comes to a national pastime, Tusty notes that “singing is their baseball.”

When Tusty and Castle’s film had its premiere in Tallinn, the nation’s capital, it received a 15-minute ovation. “They all had tears in their eyes,” recalls Castle.

For Tusty, the most common reactions were a grateful recognition from natives that “we were too close to it to document it ourselves.” Further, it proved to be a “healing film” for factions divided by political differences.

When their movie opened in Manhattan at the end of last year, Tusty and Castle were proud that it not only received favorable notices but played for five weeks. Further word got out via a Web site (Singing Revolution.com) that generated more than 20,000 hits. Now, the film is slated for dates in major markets across the country and abroad.

Friendly place

As for the Estonian present, Tusty observes that it is now a tourist destination for Baltic cruises, and almost comically, a place where the British go to have bachelor parties. If you decide to visit, Tusty and Castle advise that you stay for more than a day and take in the beauty of the “Oldtown” section of Tallinn and get to know the people. Thanks to American programs they saw during the Soviet occupation, the Estonians have an affinity for American culture, says Tusty.

“If you make a friend with an Estonian, you have a friend for life.” True to their disposition, in part formed through hard experience, “pay attention to what is not said and that they speak only when it counts.”

Their language is Finno-Ugric, one with a kind of Finnish-Hungarian influence.

But above all, says Tusty, know that the Estonians are “a tough breed” who fought their way out of oppression with the peaceful, harmonious power of song.

Categories: Life and Arts

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