Depicting the Abkhazia conflict through the lens of an outsider, Zaza Urushadze’s Tangerines is an emotional and haunting study of the senselessness of war.
The Killing Fieldsby Kendra Kronenbourg
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
The 1992 dispute over the Abkhazia region and its resulting ethnic tensions might not be well known, but for Georgian writer-director Zara Urushadze Tangerines isn’t an academic depiction of a forgotten war, but rather a universal message of humanity, compassion and friendship under the most difficult circumstances. Known to its people as Apsny, or the land of the soul, the conflict over Abkhazia’s independence has landed Estonia with its first Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language film. And it’s certainly well-deserved, as with this absolutely compelling anti-war drama, Zara Urushadze is dishing up food for the soul by the crate.
Anticipating the arrival of the apocalypse in their war-torn region, long-time neighbours and friends Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) and Margus (Elmo Nüganen), both of Estonian descent, decide to stay behind in their deserted village for the next few days to finish harvesting Margus’ crop of tangerines. Ivo, a man in his sixties living on his own – his granddaughter having already returned to Estonia – manufactures and provides the wooden crates to store the enormous amount of tangerines. One day, while both men are working hard to achieve the impossible, soldiers from both sides – from Abkhazia (with Russian support) and Georgia – fight right on their doorstep. Everyone is killed except for two wounded soldiers, and Ivo begins to nurse both of them under his roof. Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), a Chechen mercenary fighting on the Abkhazian side, is not as badly wounded as his Georgian counterpart Niko (Misha Meskhi), who at first needs intensive care. While offering almost everything – his home, his undivided attention and care, and first and foremost his compassion – Ivo’s biggest challenge is to negotiate a ceasefire-agreement between these two stubborn men. Ahmed is a man of pride and full of respect for Ivo, giving his word not to touch Niko until he is well enough to fight again and only then outside of Ivo’s house. And so the days are filled with brewing tea, preparing meals, fixing a cassette tape and getting to know each other, but how long can this apparent calm last?
Initially, it’s difficult to understand why Ivo and Margus might refuse to leave their homes when war comes knocking. But it’s a common psychological reaction to continue with a daily routine during times of war. Trapped between both sides of this nonsensical war, they find purpose in harvesting the tangerines and in taking care of these two soldiers who represent the human face of both sides of this war. At first glance, they appear different – Niko is an actor who previously performed at Tbilisi Theatre and who considers Ahmed and his culture and religion uncultured. While muslim Ahmed mocks Niko and all Georgians for their non-existing fighting skills. Gradually though, the differences begin to fade, as they break bread together under the same roof and occasionally even talk to each other. Slowly, their views of the other are eroded, and their quarrel becomes almost like a sibling rivalry – if circumstances were not as devastating.
Since Tangerines focusses mainly on the performances of its strong all-male ensemble and their interactions, the soundtrack is minimal, with a regional touch and used purposefully. No doubt, Urushadze chose Irakli Charkviani, a famous Georgian poet, writer and musician known for his rebellious character and his song Me Gadmovcurav Zgvas deliberately. Alluring and comforting after a surprising final reel, his song is a plaintive cry for a return to love, life and normality – “I have not run away, the war was like talking to you.” Ending a film on such an emotionally laden tune like Charkviani’s is perfect; there is simply nothing more to be said. And while Zaza Urushadze’s Tangerines couldn’t be any more current, its message is understated but clear, Urushadze’s gentle yet intelligent narration leading to only one conclusion – no man is an island.
Tangerines is released on 18th September 2015 in the UK