“Tangerines” was an Estonian-Georgian production that was written, directed, and produced by Zara Urushadze. It was filmed in Georgia (the European one). It was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. The movie is set in the War in Abkhazia (1992-3). This extremely nasty and complicated civil war was the Georgian government versus Abkhaz separatists who were supported by Russians and militants from the North Caucasus. The conflict was marred by numerous human rights violations and atrocities. Urushadze dedicated his film to Levan Abashidze – a famous Georgian actor who was killed in the war. The movie is a small story set in that giant mess.
In 1992, two ethnic Estonians are the sole remaining inhabitants of a village. The rest of the villagers have fled the war by going back to Estonia. Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) is a box maker. He makes wooden boxes for his neighbor Margus (Elmo Nuhanen) who grows tangerines. They are living in no man’s land and not taking sides. One day, Ivo has a firefight in his front yard between Caucasians and Georgians. There are only two wounded survivors – one each. Ivo takes in Nika (Mikheil Meskhi) and Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze) who want to kill each other. They agree to a tension-filled truce. This situation continues for weeks as the two recover. It is definitely awkward. And it’s going to get more awkward when the war knocks on the door again.
“Tangerines” should not be as good as it is. The premise is trite and unoriginal and could have been set in many other wars, including the American Civil War. It is one of those movies that within five minutes you know it is going to be unambiguously anti-war. Given the set-up, you are just wondering who will survive because you know at least half of the quartet ain’t gonna make it. That turned out to be true, but how we get to the bleak ending is nicely done. The movie is thought-provoking. There are long takes and provocative dialogue. The cast is great and the characters are finely drawn. By the way, there are no females in the movie. There is also no villain. The four men who are thrown together are all positive characters. Ivo is a bit of a saint in a movie that has no religion. The relationship arc of Nika and Ahmed is predictable and unrealistic for two men on opposite sides of this horrific war. I think if the movie had come out soon after the war (instead of 25 years later), Georgians would have said: “yeah, right!” If you are not familiar with the war (and I wasn’t), it does not really explain it. It is a very micro view. The war invades Ivo’s life, he does not go seeking it. However, you will find out that the war was f’ed up.
I have seen similar movies that point out how civil wars are messy and especially for civilians. Movies like “No Man’s Land”, “Pretty Village, Pretty Flame”, and “Prisoners of the Mountain”. “Tangerines” is better and if you have not seen any movies about modern European shit-storms, it is a good starter. You really won’t have to watch any of the others, you’ll get the basics from “Tangerines”. First, migrate as soon as the conflict begins (just not to America). Second, you know that neighbor you are best friends with, you should kill him now. You know that other ethnic group that resides in your country (and your best friend belongs to), they are subhuman. But, if you really got to know an individual in that group, you would learn they are actually human like you. Lastly, you will find that neither side is right. So, if you are using movies like “Tangerines” to find out who the good guys were in the war, forget it. If you are an American, you might want to watch it to get ready for when Texas tries to secede from the Union.