Filmmakers Who Have Made Estonia Their Focus Return For Song Festival ({{commentsTotal}})

American filmmakers James and Maureen Tusty first visited Estonia in 1999, coming to teach film techniques at a small university which was the forerunner of Tallinn University’s Baltic Film and Media School.

“We came to teach at a small university for three months in 1999, and I dare say since then, Estonia has become a huge part of our lives,” James said. “You never know what’s going to happen in life. You make one small decision, and it ends up having a huge implication, and that’s what happened to us.”

Since their first visit, the Tustys have produced two films involving Estonia. One, 2007’s The Singing Revolution (trailer here), is a documentary film that portrays the role of the Song Festival, Laulupidu, in Estonians’ move to re-establish independence from the Soviet Union.

Their latest film, To Breathe As One (trailer), debuted last year at the Tartuff Film Festival in Tartu, and was later shown in theaters around the country. To coincide with this week’s Song and Dance Festival, the DVD was released in bookstores and DVD shops Tuesday and will be on sale at the event.

The Tustys arrived in Tallinn today, and will be taking part in a special viewing of their latest film at the Museum of Occupations on Thursday (a limited number of tickets are available here) before joining the Song and Dance Festival as spectators.

James and Maureen spoke to’s Scott Abel about the legacy of "The Singing Revolution" film as well as their latest project about Estonia, and what newcomers can expect this weekend.


The Singing Revolution is now a television fixture on Estonian independence days. That must be immensely gratifying. What comes to mind when you look back at that first Estonian-themed project?

James: We’re honored that the Estonian population views our film as being accurate enough to be playing it on independence days, both the 1918 independence and the breakaway from the Soviet Union.

Maureen: The primary goal was to share the film outside of Estonia and we still have screening showing inside the US. Estonians are so critical – in a good way – and analytical, that it’s a huge complement that they think that within Estonia, it’s accurate enough and worthwhile to show. It is still showing in the US, it still has legs after several years.

James: It does, amazingly enough. It’s in 10,000 schools with 25 lesson plans. So we’re reaching, probably, a million schools a year. In some ways I would argue that is the biggest legacy of all. Another legacy is if you Google “Singing Revolution”, you will come up with four million pages. We some ways, the Internet presence and the school presence are the biggest legacies. It’s still getting screened 10 or 20 times a year somewhere. Sometimes Maureen and I are invited to do Q&A with the screens, and DVD are being purchased all the time. It’s an evergreen. Documentaries are well known as being as popular as dramatic fiction films. But the shelf life of a documentary is so much longer. It can be as relevant 20 years later as it is the day it is released, and that’s not true for other films.

Your latest film, To Breathe As One, is being released on DVD this week in Estonia. For those who haven’t seen it yet, is it a spinoff, or a continuation of The Singing Revolution?

Maureen: It is a related topic, but we tried to stress that it is not a sequel to the Singing Revolution, but that film did touch on the Song Festival, and we felt that it’s a story in of itself. We made a film that gives the history of the festival, but also allows you to experience in role of music in Estonian culture, and we explore that much more in this film. It’s really about Estonian music with a little crossover with the role that it plays in regaining independence, but for the most part, it is about experiencing the Song Festival.

James: It essentially covers the entire history of the Song Festival, Laulupidu. It was founded in 1869, and what we find interesting about that song festival is that it is more than about the music. It is about a national identity. It's about unification of the people. And at least twice in its history it contributed to the freedom of the people of Estonia; once from Czarist Russia and once from the Soviet Union. It terms of it being a sequel, I want to add one thing to that. If someone watches a film of George Washington and then watches a film about Al Capone, are those sequels because they both took place in America?

I have a feeling that there is more than one story in Estonia, and yes, it overlaps because it deals with music. Estonia is a musical culture, and so it makes sense. It's a half concert film, half history film. What we tried to do as best we could is interweave the history of the song festival so it gives it meaning, but it also gives the audience to spend a minute or two minutes uninterrupted listening to a particular song that we have listed in the history portion of the film. But even if we haven't, it gives people a visceral understanding of the nature of the event.

Maureen: The unique thing we did is we wanted to help draw in the American audience – why should they watch a film about this festival that is happening on the other side of the world that I will probably never be able to go to? So to help connect them, you follow an American youth choir that had auditioned and had been accepted at the festival, the Piedmont Children's Choir out of Oakland, California. So we followed them as they participated in the last festival. The story unfolds through their eyes as they learn the history and go through the process of participating and what it meant for them. That was a fun way of following the kids. Then we hooked up with the ETV girl's choir and Aarne Saluveer, and they were just phenomenal. (Maureen had to leave at this point)

James: Another way of differentiating the two films is that the Singing Revolution is somewhat of an historical record about how Estonia broke free from the Soviet Union. To Breathe As One has somewhat of the element of a reality TV show. Not in the sense of putting people in unusual and stressful situations and seeing how they handle it; we didn't play any games with it, we truly are taking some cameras and following these kids from Oakland, California, as they travel to Estonia and meet up with their fellow choir-singers across the ocean and participate in this huge festival and truly learn about the history of Estonia while there.


What kind of release has To Breathe As One had so far in the US?

James: We decided not to go theatrical with it, for many reasons. It went straight to television, and hit about 75-76 percent of the public television markets in the US. It had a particularly wide release on Friday, and played in about 60 percent of the country Friday night. We also released an educational version of this as well, that has some lesson plans for those who want to use it in the classroom.


You said this is the first time that you will be able to sit back as a spectator in 15 years at the Song Festival this weekend. For someone who is coming to the Song Festival for the first time, what should they expect?

James: It is a very unique experience, for a lot of reasons - first, for the quality of the music. I think when people hear that there are 30,000 singers on stage, it almost sounds like any 30,000 people from the audience that could sing do sing. You have to understand that everyone has to audition, and these are not any 30,000. These people have to audition – it’s the best they can find – and it’s reflected in the quality of the music. This is not simply a casual gathering of amateur singers. This is a high-quality musical performance, and it’s just stunning. Second, people usually think of concerts as being - pick your seat, sit down for an hour and a half, take an intermission – kind of event. Someone who has never been to the Song Festival may not understand that this is as much as a festival in the classic sense as it is a concert. Moving 30,000 people on and off the stage can be a 15-minute process, and during that time you can stand up and walk around. For some reason, it always seems to rain, but I’m crossing my fingers, and hoping it’s a sunshine weekend this year.


The trailer for To Breathe As One:


The trailer for The Singing Revolution:

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