Film Review “Year of the Dragon” (Draakoni aasta)
“Year of the Dragon” (Draakoni aasta)
(1988 original/2010 restored edition)
dir. Andres Sööt
The Dragon is one of the twelve animal signs of the Chinese Zodiac. The major characteristics of the Dragon are ambition and daring. When influenced by the Earth element the Dragon is grounded and will act carefully in order to achieve its goals.
Whether or not you believe in Eastern Astrology, it is easy to see the dramatic coincidence that the beginnings of Estonia’s drive for re-independence and of its Singing Revolution took flight in the year 1988, which was a Chinese Year of the Dragon tempered by the Earth Element. This is a concurrence that comes only once in every 60 years by the Chinese method of reckoning.
Andres Sööt’s “Year of the Dragon” is a documentary that takes a chronological view of events in Soviet-occupied Estonia in 1988. The period covered in the film is actually from St. George’s Day (Jüripäev) in mid-April, 1988 to the initial declaration of sovereignty by the Supreme Soviet of the Estonian SSR on November 16, 1988 (which was soon thereafter nullified by Moscow). In hindsight, many of the events chronicled in the film can be seen as incremental steps towards Estonia’s final declaration of re-established independence on August 20, 1991, which could only be dreamed of at the time of filming.
The film has somewhat of the character of newsreels in that it is in black and white (crisply digitally enhanced in this 2010 restoration) and that it periodically makes note of changes in the weather and of market conditions (often shortages) for food, ice cream, gasoline and alcohol during the course of the year. The political and social events that take place over the course of what is only a 7 month period grow in intensity and passion. We see excerpts from one of the first-ever performances of Alo Mattiisen’s “Five Patriotic Songs” at the June 4, 1988 Old Town Days held in the Tallinn City Square that grew into the informal All-Night Sing-a-Longs later that same week at the Song Festival Grounds. A not-so-subtle costumed town crier (Is it Heinz Valk? The film pre-supposes knowledge of Estonia’s political and cultural figures and rarely identifies them specifically on screen) castigates the “occupiers” of the city. Gatherings are held to memorialize the death of dissident Jüri Kukk and to seek freedom for dissidents Mart Niklus and Enn Tarto. Karl Vaino is ousted as the First Secretary of the Estonian Communist Party and is replaced by Estonian-speaker Vaino Väljas. The Estonian Congress is held and the Patriotic Front (Rahvarinne) is formed. Rahvarinne representative Marju Lauristan is seen attempting to establish common ground with a Russian-backed Inter-Movement audience, although she is shouted down. Women’s Individual Speed Sprint Gold-Medallist Erika Salumäe returns from the 1988 Olympic Summer Games held in Seoul, South Korea and is hailed a national hero. In what is the emotional climax, we see the Song of Estonia (Eestimaa Laul) gathering of September 11, 1988 with the Popular Front’s Heinz Valk declaring “One day we will win anyway!” (“Ükskord me võidame niikuinii!”) and an excerpt of Tõnis Mägi singing his “Prayer” (“Palve”) before the audience of 300,000 at the same event. All throughout the film, the formerly-banned blue, black and white Estonian national flag begins to appear more and more prevalently. Bookend scenes of Communist May Day and October Revolution parades somberly remind us that there was much that remained to be done before those symbols of occupation could finally be erased.
Andres Sööt is one of the living legends of Estonian documentary film with over 70 films to his credit. The restoration of his 1988 “Year of the Dragon” in conjunction with the 75th anniversary of Tallinnfilm Studios and the forthcoming 100th anniversary of Estonian film in 2012 allows a present-day audience the opportunity to again re-live these momentous events of 1988 and reflect on how boldness tempered with caution led to the re-newed independence of Estonia.
Music fans should note that the incidental electronic music used in the film is by Erkki-Sven Tüür who was then just embarking on his career as a composer after starting his musical life with the In Spe rock ensemble that was later inherited by Alo Mattiisen.
“Year of the Dragon” will have its Canadian Premiere screening together with the film “Gross National Happiness” at EstDocs on Sunday, October 16, 2011 at Tartu College, 310 Bloor Street West. Reception at 5 p.m. followed by films at 6 p.m.