Tangerines (Georgian: მანდარინები; Estonian: Mandariinid; Russian: Мандарины) is a 2013 film co-produced in Georgia and Estonia. Directed by Zaza Urushadze, the film deals with the 1992-1993 War in Abkhazia. It does so, however, from an unusual perspective, namely, that of an Estonian living in Abkhazia. Tangerines was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2015 Academy Awards, but it lost to the Polish film Ida.
The film’s protagonist is Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak), a wise old man living in an Estonian village in Abkhazia. What, you ask, would an Estonian be doing in Abkhazia? That’s a fair question, and indeed a character in the movie asks it. Here’s what Urushadze says:
The fact is, Estonians had these villages in Georgia for over a hundred years. The czar granted this opportunity of re-settlement to some Estonians freed from slavery who then had nothing, no land of their own. The three separate nations — Abkhazia, Georgia, and Estonia — were all part of the Russian Empire then, under the czar. He wanted to develop another region, so he offered to send a few thousand Estonians to Abkhazia. So since the second half of the 19th century, Estonians lived there for generations. They lived a peaceful, comfortable life there in the warm climate with all the vineyards, and they did very well. They prospered, because they were hard-working. In 1992 when the war broke out, Estonia had been free from Russia for a year by then, and the Estonian President gave the opportunity to Estonians for repatriation. He sent planes there for an airlift. It was sad, because they didn’t want to leave, but soon the villages were empty.
The story takes place after that repatriation, when only a handful of Estonians remained. Besides Ivo, we meet only two others: Ivo’s hapless neighbor Margus (Elmo Nüganen), and the village doctor, who leaves for Estonia about a half hour into the movie. Aside from a framed picture of Ivo’s granddaughter that draws frequent comments from the other characters, there are no women in Tangerines.
The premise of the movie is simple. Ivo and Margus are trying to prepare the tangerines from Margus’s orchard for sale, Margus by picking the fruits and Ivo by producing wooden crates to put them in. A skirmish takes place near Margus’s house between a group of Georgians and some Chechen mercenaries fighting on the side of the Abkhazians. Most of the soldiers are killed, but the Estonians are able to rescue two survivors, a Chechen named Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze) and a Georgian named Nika (Mikheil Meskhi), and they nurse them back to health. I say “premise” and not “plot” because there really isn’t much dramatic development beyond this; the set-up that I’ve just described takes up almost half of the running time.
After this comes a sequence of scenes that verges on sitcom-y, and it’s not hard to see how: This fall on ABC…He’s Georgian..He’s Chechen…They hate each other…But now they have to learn to live together under the same roof!…They’re Abkhaz Housemates…Only on ABC. There’s a vignette in which some Abkhazian soldiers pay a visit to Ivo’s house to investigate the skirmish. Knowing that they will kill Nika if they find out he’s Georgian, Ivo tells Nika to pretend that he is a Chechen whose injuries have rendered him unable to speak. Ahmed, despite hating the Georgian, plays along, and danger is avoided. The specifics of the setting aside, this is straightforwardly a sitcom premise.
Under the watchful eye of Ivo, Nika and Ahmed eventually grow to respect each other. But the fun gets cut off abruptly, and the film ends on a dark note. Because there isn’t much of a plot, there isn’t much of a conclusion either — just an ending. Tangerines is basically a slice-of-life story, albeit a slice of the life of a villager in wartime. There’s no character arc for Ivo, as if the horrible things he’s seen have long since stopped affecting him.
The director has emphasized that the film is about maintaining one’s humanity in difficult circumstances:
Ivo remains human. He retains all the features that distinguish humans from animals – leniency, willingness to forgive and to understand, tolerance, sensibility and empathy. He feels no envy and remains a man of great strength of mind, despite all the circumstances. This is what the film is about: humanity. We can easily forget, deny ourselves, and allow other people to manipulate us, which, in reality, is not a big deal. We easily forget that we are all humans. We can be of different origin, from different states, of different faith, but we are all humans. This is the main message of my film – that we should remember the most important thing: to stay human.
I agree that the film is about humanity, but I would say it’s a different aspect of humanity. I wasn’t so much impressed with Ivo’s noble traits like understanding and empathy (although he certainly has those) as I was with how mundane the events of the war appeared to him. Even in the face of soldiers shaking him down for supplies, Ivo remains calm. He isn’t scared of the war or angry or forlorn about his lost loved ones, but at the same time he isn’t resigned or hopeless or otherwise nihilistic. It can’t be easy for an actor to avoid showing one of these emotions without also showing another, but Lembit Ulfsak manages it.
Elmo Nüganen does a great job with his character too. Margus is not as stoic as Ivo, and worries constantly. But like Ivo, he isn’t worried about the war per se; rather, he worries about how he will be able to sell the tangerines. One of the strange things about Tangerines is the disconnect between the characters and the viewers as regards the plot. Normally in a movie the viewer is interested in more or less the same thing as the characters: in the Lord of the Rings movie, for example, the characters are trying to destroy the ring and ultimately defeat Sauron, and the viewers are interested in seeing how the characters accomplish this.
In Tangerines, the viewers are interested in seeing what will happen with the two wounded soldiers, but Ivo and especially Margus are mostly concerned with the fate of the crop. We can think of this as something of a subplot, and it has a typical dramatic arc: 1. Margus knows an army major who wants to buy the tangerines; but 2. the major can’t come because of another battle, and so Margus has no buyer; then 3. the Abkhazian troops who stop at Ivo’s house offer to buy them. Set-up, conflict, resolution — which is more than can be said for the main plot! But to me this fixation on quotidian matters is the most interesting aspect of the movie.
THE NEXT PARAGRAPH CONTAINS SPOILERS.
My favorite scene in Tangerines is the last one. In several scenes throughout the movie we see Nika sitting at a table and trying to re-spool a damaged cassette tape. After Nika (along with Margus) is killed in an attack by a group of unidentified soldiers, Ahmed decides to go back home to Chechnya. Driving away in a beat-up old jeep, Ahmed pops the repaired tape into the cassette deck. As we watch an aerial shot of Ahmed in the distance, we hear a song called “A Paper Boat” (ქაღალდის ნავი) by the Georgian singer Irakli Charkviani. According to the director, the song, released in 1992, was popular among Georgian soldiers during the war. You can watch this beautiful and moving scene here.
END OF SPOILERS
By the way, even though most of the people in front of and behind the camera are Georgian, not a single word of dialogue is in Georgian. Maybe a third of the dialogue is in Estonian (whenever the Estonian characters are talking to each other), and the rest is in Russian. This is because Russian was the common language of the various nationalities of the Soviet Union, of which there are no fewer than four represented in the movie (Estonian, Chechen, Georgian, and Abkhazian).
While I’m talking about language, why did they choose the word “tangerines” instead of “mandarins”? It’s called “mandarins” or something like that in every other language I’ve looked up (e.g. the Azeri “Mandarinlər”), so why did they change it for English? As far as I know (which is not very far), there’s no significant difference between mandarin and tangerines. I suppose “tangerines” is more widely used in America, but is that true for all Anglophone countries? Maybe they could have used “clementines” instead, or even “satsumas”.
So, do I recommend this movie? Yes, with the caveat that if your goal is just to learn about the Abkhazia war, you won’t get much out of it. The details of the war are not important at all; as Urushadze says, “Ivo could have been either Georgian or Chechen. It was just that this script needed him to be Estonian.” What you’ll get instead is a neat little story about some villagers and their tireless efforts to sell fruit in trying times.
Interviews with Urushadze:
- Kino Caviar
- “[Ivo] is based on my grandfather, who was really like a hero for everyone. He was very strong in human values. His principle was to live a very honest life, to be absolutely straight-forward. I thought of him as I was writing the script.”
- Georgian Journal
- “Over all these years, we Georgians have
finally realized that Russia will be Russia and Kremlin’s politics do not change. They choose to remain aggressive. What good is there to be expected of Putin, anyway? Russia hasn’t done a single good thing for Georgia in 200 years and there is no incentive to think that it will ever change its imperialistic ways – regardless of how we behave.”
- “Over all these years, we Georgians have
- “Lots of my friends died in this war. This period is just a definition of pure sadness for me as well as for many many others.”
- East Book
- “What is now happening in South Ossetia – the systematic shifting of borders, inch by inch, to Georgia’s constant disadvantage – causes strong reactions among Georgian citizens. And, being a citizen of a small country, I cannot stay calm observing these attempts to deprive us of a part of our territory. However, my film should not be perceived as a statement or a form of engagement in political infighting between states.”
- Awards Circuit
- “Despite the humane nature of this central character however, Urushadze’s script never crosses over into naivety. Though the story is mainly about finding common ground between fierce enemies, the harsh reality of violent conflict is always a threat.”
- “…seriocomic drama…”
- The Hollywood Reporter
- “Director Urushadze films the rural landscapes with a poetic but unsentimental eye, so that when the bucolic scenes are blasted by gunfire, the impact is even greater.”
- Estonian Public Broadcasting
- “As for historical accuracy, don’t look too deeply here. The real Estonian Abkhazian villagers were perhaps not so ‘straight out of Tammsaare [?]’ as Ulfsak’s and Nüganen’s characters in their muddy ideal landscape.”