A derelict church stands in a forest six hours drive from Chicago. Battered by weather, it’s a monument to forgotten waves of immigration from Estonia in the early years of the Twentieth century. One of the last surviving monuments to the hopes and dreams of that first group of settlers from the Baltics it’s a historically significant building.
When it seemed that the church might be lost forever due to the elements a saviour arrived determined to restore the building to its former glory and remind the descendants of Estonian immigrants about their heritage.
In 1900 large numbers of Estonians fled the country in search of a better life. Some went to Australia and Russia. For those who arrived in America, the land of opportunity promised greater religious and political freedoms. Close to 200 newly arrived migrants relocated to Gleason when an Estonian language newspaper published an article that noted similarities between the Wisconsin landscape and Estonia’s countryside. In 1907 the community purchased a stretch of land and established its first church on American soil.
Disused for more than half a century this church was forgotten as successive generations left the village and migrated to cities. Abandoned and later vandalised, it looked as though the elements would destroy this touchstone to the first wave of Estonian migration. When it looked like all hope of preserving it was lost a film director came to the rescue. For several decades Bill Rebane has written, directed, and produced low-budget cult movies. The great nephew of the church’s first minister of faith, his emotional attachment to the building galvanised Estonians into banding together to restore the church.
Kullar Viimne and Erik Norkroos documentary follows Bill Rebane and his band of committed volunteers as they endeavour to restore the building to its former glory. The film successfully communicates why it is so important to preserve this place of worship. More than a testament to long gone generation’s hopes and dreams it’s a physical embodiment of a group of people’s one remaining symbol of home and spiritual freedom.
As the band of volunteers busy themselves restoring the building’s foundations and installing a new roof, Estonian Rock-star Tõnis Mägi is invited to fly to America and play at a benefit concert. Documenting the last few weeks of work on the church, it follows Tõnis Mägi as he prepares to perform in it’s grounds. Land of Soul shows how song and prayer have united successive generations of Estonians.
Enlightening and moving, Land of Soul reminds descendants of immigrants about the importance of not forgetting their cultural history. The film is a fitting memorial to those early settlers and a celebration of what their descendants have achieved in America.
The film is available to watch exclusively on Baltic View.
If you want to see Land of Soul send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to register your interest.
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