After the Revolutions of 1989, many of the post-communist states struggled to sustain peace. The South Ossetia War (1991-1992), the Tajik Civil War (1991-1997), and the East Prigorodny Conflict (1992), among other battles, remind us that political revolutions are rarely peaceful, and that the transfer of power from a totalitarian regime to a democratic government is easier said than done.
Historically, this has been the case, and it continues to be the case today. The violent Arab Spring has turned into the even more violent Arab Winter, and as we approach the fifth year anniversary of the Tunisian Revolution, the prospect of peace has fallen further out of reach. Experts once thought that Tunisia was the exception to the instability in countries like Syria and Libya, but a recent terrorist attack by the Islamic State is raising concerns. (“Tunisia passes anti-terror laws after deadly attacks”, Al Jazeera, 25 July 2015) One has to wonder, what is all the fighting for?
Zaza Urushadze’s Tangerines (2014) tries to answer this question. In the film, Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) is an old Estonian man who lives in a rural Abkhazian village. The War in Abkhazia (1992-1993) between Georgian government forces and Russian-backed Abkhazian separatists has forced most of the Estonians in the village to return to their homeland, but Ivo and his business partner Margus (Elmo Nüganen) stay behind to harvest their tangerines.
They are brought into the conflict when two warring soldiers show up wounded at their doorstep. Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze) is a Chechen mercenary fighting for the Abkhazian separatists, and Niko (Mikheil Meskhi) is a Georgian volunteer fighting for his government. Ivo offers the two soldiers refuge.
After Ivo slowly nurses Ahmed back to health, Ahmed vows to kill Niko. Ivo stays out of their conflict, but he draws the line when it comes to violence in his presence. Ahmed can do whatever he likes when he leaves Ivo’s property, but while he remains a guest in Ivo’s house, he must agree to an informal peace treaty of sorts. Ahmed complies, and as the story progresses, he slowly learns to respect Ivo, the man who saves his life, and Niko, the man whose life he wants to end.
Like Joyeux Noël (2005), The Last Samurai (2003), and The Pianist (2002), Tangerines is a war film about enemy soldiers who become friends after they are forced to interact with one another. The point is to highlight the various reasons why people fight, and then to show why these reasons are inadequate.
Niko, like most soldiers, fights to protect his homeland. Ahmed, on the other hand, fights for money, and there’s a sense that he could care less about the outcome of the conflict. Urushadze uses the specific story of these soldiers to make a broader point about human strife.
Both men have been conditioned to look at the conflict through a particular perspective, and it’s likely that they have never bothered to comprehend the other side. This is because soldiers shoot to kill the enemy before the enemy opens his or her mouth. Ivo, an elderly outsider, wisely sees through Ahmed and Niko’s one-sided views of the world.
The film is a passionate plea for diplomacy and coexistence. Urushadze creates a cinematic world where enemy soldiers can lay down their weapons and have a conversation. If they do that, Urushadze shows, they won’t be so inclined to kill. The real world is a little more complicated, but Urushadze’s utopian vision will always be the more appealing alternative.
Tangerines is an Estonia-Georgia co-production by a Georgian filmmaker, and it rightfully received a 2015 Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. I’ve seen all of the nominees and have reviewed four of them for this publication. I can confidently say that it’s the strongest Best Foreign Language Film category in years, and vastly superior to the American films that were nominated for Best Picture.
Like Romania and other post-communist countries, Georgian cinema has been reinvigorated by a “Georgian New Wave”, which finds contemporary filmmakers coming to terms with life before and after independence from the Soviet Union. A Trip to Karabakh (2005), for example, is about a group of teenage boys from Tbilisi who travel to Azerbaijan to buy drugs and find themselves in the Nagorno-Karabakh War (1988-1994). The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear (2012) is a documentary about contemporary Georgian youth. In Bloom (2013) is a coming-of-age film about two Georgian girls in 1992. The films of the “Georgian New Wave” do not share a cohesive cinematic style; in the case of Tangerines, the realist aesthetic forces viewers to focus on the characters and themes.
Georgian filmmakers are reclaiming their cinematic heritage with these films. This is a heritage that was well-established before the Soviet occupation in 1921, and one that almost came crashing down with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. As journalist Paul Rimple puts it, “Georgian directors have risen from the ashes of a collapsed film history, showing that even with limited resources it is possible to make world-class films.” (“Georgia: Catching a New Wave of Cinema”, EurasiaNet, 8 January 2015) Tangerines continues this trend, and it is one of Georgia’s greatest films since independence.
Note: The DVD’s lame five-minute behind-the-scenes featurette fails to offer insight into the film. It’s the only bonus feature on the disc.