Issue 49 (2015)

Zaza Urushadze: Tangerines (Mandariinid, 2013)

reviewed by Seth Graham© 2015

mandarinyGeorgian cinema, the oldest and possibly best-known internationally of the former Soviet republican cinemas, has, like other film industries in the (no longer so newly) independent states, suffered from financial paucity and tumultuous current events that have made it difficult to make films domestically for nearly a quarter century (the best-known living Georgian director, Otar Iosseliani, has lived and worked in France for over three decades). Georgia and the Caucasus more broadly have of course been the setting for several wars since the collapse of the USSR, two of them on Georgian territory (most recently the conflict with Russia in Southern Ossetia in 2008). Disruptive historical events themselves, both past and present, have provided popular subject matter for those films that have been produced since independence in 1991, in such places as Tajikistan, Ukraine, Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as in Georgia.

mandarinyTangerines is one such work, although its historicism is accompanied by the detectable influence of the Georgian cinematic tradition of lyricism and philosophical nuance. The Estonian-Georgian coproduction takes place in 1992–93 and begins with an epigraph informing the viewer that Estonian settlers had lived in Abkhazia (a disputed province of Georgia bordering on the Black Sea) for more than a century. One such Estonian, an elderly carpenter named Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak), is the visual and moral centre of Urushadze’s film. He builds the fruit crates for his friend and business partner Margus (Elmo Nüganen), who grows the titular tangerines. Ivo has decided to remain in his rural Abkhazian home after his entire family, and most other civilians in the area, have left for Estonia to escape the escalating territorial war between Abkhazian separatists (supported by Russia) and the Georgian government. As Ivo and Margus struggle to harvest the final tangerine crop (Margus plans to leave for Estonia after selling it), the war enters their lives directly when a brief skirmish outside Margus’s gate leaves several fighters from both sides dead, and two wounded—one Georgian and one Chechen (a mercenary fighting on the Abkhazian side)—both of whom are taken in and nursed back to health by Ivo, Margus and a local doctor.

mandarinyThis set-up—putting two sworn enemies under the same roof, and entirely dependent on their pacifist host and savior—might have been done too obviously by a less skilful and experienced filmmaker. But Urushadze’s script and direction manage throughout to be clearly messaged, yet subtle, with each successive conversation between the soldiers slightly less combative, as they begrudgingly become aware of their shared circumstances, their not so dissimilar backgrounds and motivations, and their reflexive decency and sense of honor.

mandarinyAhmed, the Chechen, vows to Ivo as soon as he is conscious that he will kill the Georgian, Niko, at the first opportunity, to avenge the death of his friend Ibrahim, who died in the skirmish. Urushadze seemingly makes a point of the fact that Ahmed is not motivated by his loyalty to an independent Abkhazia; the wounded mercenary makes reference several times to the fact that he is fighting primarily for the money it brings him. This slight imbalance between the enemies (Niko is in fact fighting in sincere defense of the integrity of the Georgian state) makes the film’s overall anti-war message even broader: there is no forum for discussing the relative merits of each side’s claim to the land, or for any nationalistic affinities on the part of the filmmaker; in this the film stands apart from numerous recent works of a clearly nationalist bent produced across the former Soviet Union, including Russia. Ivo’s own broadside statements against war in general hold greater weight than any potential commentary on this war in particular. Urushadze also neutralizes any possible comparison among religions; at several points, Ahmed and Niko unwittingly find common ground in the similar moral and ethical prescriptions of their respective faiths of Islam and Christianity. Ahmed announces his vendetta not only in terms of his friendship with Ibrahim, but also as an inviolable tenet of his Islamic faith, but when Niko offers his condolences on the death of Ibrahim, Ahmed cannot help but respond with his own condolences to Niko, who also lost comrades in the skirmish. As the fragile peace created in Ivo’s house is threatened by outside forces, and the film moves quickly towards its inevitably violent climax, the sea change in the two soldiers’ worldviews is vast, yet compelling and impeccably motivated, to the credit of not only Urushadze and his crew, but to the uniformly excellent performances by his cast.

mandarinyTangerines can be situated among a number of films since the 1990s that have examined the multi-ethnic nature of the Soviet Union without any obvious political agenda, and which use encounters between representatives of different ethnic and religious groups to make powerful metaphorical points not only about local and national histories, but about ethnicity, religion and human relationships more generally. Usman Saparov’s Little Angel, Make Me Happy (Turkmenistan, 1992), for example, is set among the German population of Turkmenistan just before their deportation during the Second World War. Another film from Central Asia, Marat Sarulu’s Song of Southern Seas (Kazakhstan, 2008) is a contemporary drama about a Russian family living in rural Kazakhstan and their Kazakh neighbors, and also features subplots about Cossacks, Russianized Germans, and Kyrgyz horse herders, in a narrative that encompasses the entire history of Russian colonial presence in Central Asia.

Urushadze’s film is also part of a quiet but noticeable revival in international interest in cinema from the former Soviet world; it was shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2014, along with Andrei Zviagintsev’s Leviathan and Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (which took home the Oscar).

Seth Graham
University College London

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Tangerines, Estonia and Georgia, 2013
Color, 87 minutes, Russian and Estonian
Director and Scriptwriter: Zaza Urushadze
Cinematography: Rein Kotov
Music: Niaz Diasamidze
Cast: Lembit Ulfsak (Ivo), Elmo Nüganen (Margus), Mikheil Meskhi (Niko), Giorgi Nakashidze (Ahmed)
Producers: Ivo Felt, Zaza Urushadze
Production: Allfilm, Georgian Film

Zaza Urushadze: Tangerines (Mandariinid, 2013)

reviewed by Seth Graham© 2015

Updated: 02 Jul 15