Jim and Maureen Tusty ('The Singing Revolution')
'A single nation. A million voices. The fall of an empire'
In 1991, after nearly fifty years of rule by a brutal Soviet occupation, the small Republic of Estonia confronted their occupiers by announcing their independence to the world. Their charge heralded the collapse of the Soviet Union and the freedom of now-suddenlyformer
Music played a pivotal role in these historical events. 'The Singing Revolution' tells the story of one country’s undeniable thirst for selfdetermination and its unshakable belief in what it means to be free—to be Estonian.
The Singing Revolution was a movement which would, in the last days, pave the way to bringing the Soviet Union to their knees, and Estonians to their feet. After nearly fifty years of murder, torture, deportation, and ultimately a cultural genocide by the Soviet system,
the massive power of a nation dedicated to its own independence would alter the course of history.
'The Singing Revolution' chronicles Estonia’s non-violent march toward freedom. From the 1939 secret (and illegal) protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Stalin and Hitler that would ignite World War II, to the Siberian Gulag and the Estonian underground resistance known as the Forest Brothers, 'The Singing Revolution' stands as a tribute to a
people whose spirit as a free nation was kept alive under astonishing circumstances.
Chatting with both Jim and Maureen Tusty, the directors of the film, I first wondered what was had been the initial spark that had gotten them both interested in the project? "Jim’s father was born in Estonia, and Jim is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Estonia. Given that background, we jumped at the chance to teach filmmaking at an Estonian university in the summer of 1999. It was during that summer we started hearing these amazing stories about what had happened during the Singing Revolution. We called friends and no one had heard of these events. We returned to Estonia in 2001 to teach again, and then determined that this story had to be told. It was both too amazing and too unknown. If not us, who? If not now, when?"
For the Average Joe who may not have heard of this event, let alone Estonia, how would you sell the movie's experience to them? "The key is to understand that at its core this is an inspirational film, not an historical film. This film is an experience you immerse yourself in, not a lesson. And while the film takes place in Estonia, it is not about Estonia. It is about human potential. The story of the Singing Revolution will amaze you about what people are capable of enduring, and then what they are capable of achieving…far beyond what you think is possible. It then will take you to thoughts and feelings about what you can achieve, and about how you may have been limiting yourself."
"This is one of the few documentaries that leaves you feeling good….even great…after watching it. This does not depress, even though there are some very heavy and depressing parts of it. But we have heard numerous stories of audiences giving a standing ovation during the credits, even when the filmmakers weren’t there. It has that kind of effect on audiences."
'The Singing Revolution' clearly comes across as both a history lesson and a somewhat cautionary warning, but which to you was always the more clearer focal direction? "This is, at its base, a story. It is not a history lesson, though the story is told in the context of a certain history. But this is an inspirational story that you would not believe if it were fiction. How can singing face down tanks and win? But it did happen, and we show not only that it happened, but also how it happened.
How easy (or hard) was it to gather all the info together, to listen to the many sad; but yet ultimately euphoric voices, to see those images day after day? "It was very time consuming, but not hard given the compelling nature of this story. We ourselves, as the filmmakers, were on a learning journey ourselves for four years in the research and production of this film. Our fondest hope is that we can communicate some of that journey in 90 minutes on screen. But for us, every day was a new lesson. It was invigorating in that sense. What we know now about the Singing Revolution, and human potential, mocks our own ignorance at the very beginning of the project."
For such people as Ellen Liigus, a Singing Revolution participant who was just a teen at the time, it seems that their memories have faded along the years; but that your work has brought them thankfully back. Did you get many tales of thanx given to you along the way to creating this project by other such Singing Revolution participants, perhaps? "We have many, many tales of thanks from both sides of the ocean. For those who escaped Stalin in 1944, many have shared it is now the first time they feel their neighbors and friends can truly understand what they went through. The stories are so horrible, they are hard to understand."
"How do you explain being occupied by Stalin, then Hitler, then Stalin again? You can’t. We remember one woman at a screening party who shared a story of hiding behind bales of hay in her parents’ barn when she was 6 years old. The Red Army came in and machine gunned the entire barn, followed by a few gratuitous bayonet stabs through the hay in case anyone was hiding. Miraculously, this 6-year old girl and her two siblings survived. The soldiers never found them, the gun shots and stabbing never hit them, and they made no noise that would give them away. But the incredibly touching part for us was that this 70-year old woman said that was the first time she had ever shared that story in her lifetime….that up until our film had been released she never felt she had a proper context to explain her own experience…that it couldn’t be understood without the film’s impact."
"From Estonia, we have been told time and again that this film becomes permanent record for future generations of Estonians. 18-year olds today were not born yet during the Singing Revolution. In their new life, they don’t know much about Stalin, about the Soviets, about the occupation….and many of the Estonian young have thanked us for sharing the story in such a complete way, while the many of the elderly have thanked us for preserving their true experiences forever."
Even today, is there a lesson for the governments of the world to heed re: this movie? "There are many…we will touch on a few."
"You cannot kill the inner human drive for self-determination and freedom. It is miraculous enough that the Estonian desire for controlling their own country survived Stalin’s and Hitler’s atrocities….which led to Estonia losing 25% of its population in six years….but we think it even more amazing that Estonians never lost their sense of national identity even after several generations of Soviet propaganda and education. The Soviets surely hoped that those people who were born after Stalin’s death would simply be educated and propagandized into Soviet supporters, but it never happened. You can’t squelch the truth forever."
"Second, this was a largely leaderless revolution. Some of the pivotal events were not a mass of people following a charismatic leader, but rather the people took control of their destiny themselves, and the leaders followed afterwards. Leaders are important, but they need to be in tune with the people they are leading to truly be effective."
"Third, patience is a weapon. Not every battle has to be won overnight."
"In the long term, the totalitarian rulers eventually will lose. They cannot last forever. And they leave their people worse off than before. Russia was left in shambles after 70 years of its own totalitarian rule, and Germany suffered for years after Hitler’s death because of his totalitarian rule. There are better ways to rule…always."
How has Estonia changed - whether it be for better or for worse - since 1991, and in what ways? "This is a big question. It is all for the better, though with new problems to face. Estonia became known as the Baltic Tiger for its economic explosion that happened after they regained independence. For years, they had the fastest growing economy in Europe, and often in the top 2 or 3 countries of the world. And while that unequivoically made life better for the vast majority, there are always those who suffer during times of extreme change."
"Estonia had to learn how to best manage that, and that was a learning curve. But overall, how can you compare being able to speak out versus having to keep quiet, being told where to live versus choosing for yourself, being able to travel within your own country without the need for a government permit to do so, being allowed to travel the world versus being kept inside your own country by armed guards who would shoot you if you tried to leave…and none of those examples include the materialistic benefits of lifestyle and healthcare improvements. Only one who was born after independence would even consider the thesis that life is now worse off. Those who lived through it have no doubts."
Finally, do you have a new project waiting in the wings that you can discuss, perhaps? "We remain focused on spreading the word about this story. Over 100,000 people have seen the film, but there are millions more to reach. We have seen the reactions of audiences, and know that this film can change one’s life…in a good way. As an independent film, our limitation is promotion budget…..our issue is awareness. Those who experience this film consistently rate it highly on almost any scale you want to measure…but those who haven’t seen it often question why they would want to invest 90 minutes of their life learning about a story and a country they haven’t heard of. That is our challenge."
"We are also very involved in our new educational DVD that we hope to share with colleges and high schools throughout the country. Already Princeton, Brown, and dozens of other colleges have ordered it without any promotion, and we hope to reach a substantial number of educational institutions to keep this story alive for generations. The 3-disc educational DVD contains over four hours of additional interview clips grouped by subject (i.e. Gorbachev, role of culture in the USSR, deportation stories), 30 print documents (i.e. Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, letter from a Gulag prisoner, diary of a refugee who sailed the Atlantic on a 37-foot sailboat), 15 maps of Europe in PowerPoint (from 180 AD -1997, courtesy Times of London), newsreels from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, song festival songs, director commentaries, a 32-page instructor’s booklet, and more."
"This DVD set was designed as an encyclopedic resource where instructors can customize material to teach a course centering on music, history, nonviolent revolution, WWII, or any subject area they wish."
Thanx again for doing this for us today, and we wish you all the best for the future "Thanks for the opportunity to share our story. If any reader wants to help our cause, please contact us through www.singingrevolution.com. The educational DVD is available on the website as well."
Interviewed by Russell A. Trunk
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