Film review: (Oscar-nominated) 'Tangerines'

Tangerines poster (for standfirst).png

Tangerines, an Estonian film about the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict, is up for an Oscar in the category of Best Foreign Language Film. What was it that caught the eye of the Academy?


Maxim Edwards Thomas Rowley
20 February 2015

Smoke-grey slopes. Mud-track roads. Squat, smart houses. And armed strangers asking you your nationality. This is the opening to Tangerines (dir. Zaza Urushadze, 2013), a joint Estonian-Georgian production about lives caught in the Georgia-Abkhazia conflict of 1992-1993. The self-declared Republic of Abkhazia is still claimed – and recognised by the majority of UN members, with the notable exception of Russia – by Georgia to be its territory.

Tangerines is Estonia’s entry for the 2015 Oscars (Best Foreign Language Film), and the first picture about the conflict (let alone the South Caucasus) to make the final nominations. Georgia’s Corn Island (dir. Giorgi Ovashvili, 2014) addressed the frozen conflict through the parable of an old man and his daughter, eking out an existence in an island on the Ingur River, dividing Abkhazia and Georgia. But Corn Island failed to make the shortlist. Up against Leviathan (dir. Andrei Zviagintsev, 2014) and Ida (dir. Paweł Pawlikowski, 2014), Tangerine’s prospects of winning are probably slim. 

Nevertheless, Urushadze’s script and direction tap deep into issues still facing Georgia and Abkhazia, namely, recognition and reconciliation. Just over twenty years after one of the bloodiest post-Soviet conflicts first erupted on the Black Sea coast, Tangerines seems to offer a model, however fragmented, of resolution between sides, which have expended considerable effort on demonising one another.  But while moves are made on screen, life on the ground suggests otherwise.

The 'Citrus War'

Estonians have lived in Abkhazia since the late 19th century, and Tangerines’ protagonist, Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak), is just such one of these people. A carpenter, Ivo makes crates, which his neighbour Margus (Elmo Nüganen), a fellow Estonian, uses to transport tangerines from his orchard. With their families having fled to Estonia as the Abkhazian and Georgian militias start attacking another, these two characters continue their daily lives in preparation for the harvest. This is the ‘Citrus War’, begins Ivo, ‘and it all began with my tangerines’. ‘They’re fighting over land’ replies Margus. ‘Exactly,’ continues Ivo – ‘the same land where my tangerines grow’.

This is the ‘Citrus War’, begins Ivo, ‘and it all began with my tangerines.’

It is this domestic, normal and ‘civilised’ world, which is interrupted by outside intrusion – a Chechen militiaman, Akhmed (Giorgi Nakhashidze), who fights on the Abkhaz side, and a Georgian volunteer, Niko (Mikhail Meshki). Akhmed is first on the scene, encountering Ivo at his workshop in the opening salvo, and is quickly established as a character with a ‘code’ – Muslim and military. Upon encountering Ivo, Akhmed advises him to ‘return to [his] Estonian homeland’, before suspiciously examining his crates. ‘Are these crates for bombs?’ he asks. ‘No’ replies Ivo with the ghost of a smile, ‘for tangerines’. The principal representative of Abkhazian aggression, Akhmed is a militant from Chechnya, and thus stands in for the brigades of Chechen commander Shamil Basaev (supposedly later behind the Moscow theatre siege in 2002 and Beslan in 2004), which came to  fight against Georgian forces in Abkhazia alongside the Abkhaz as hostilities escalated in 1992-1993.

Akhmed re-appears soon enough as his convoy comes under attack by a Georgian unit. Ivo rushes to rescue Akhmed – the only clear survivor – and succeeds in dragging him back to his home. Meanwhile, Ivo and Margus set about burying the dozen or so dead bodies left behind, and in the process discover Niko, barely alive. With the help of a local Estonian doctor, Ivo restores them to health. Here then, lies the rub. Niko and Akhmed, who had previously attempted to kill one another as ‘blind’ enemies, are forced to lick their wounds – literally and figuratively – side-by-side under the watchful eye of Ivo. Though they first swear (and attempt) to kill one another, their hatred soon evaporates. Akhmed soon swears that he won’t kill Niko – at least not under Ivo’s roof.


Ivo amongst his tangerines. Image by Allfilm. (c)

Double-edged pleasantries of newly-minted enemies fill Ivo’s house

A track through conflict

Tangerines thus takes a local, intimate track through conflict. Double-edged pleasantries of newly-minted enemies fill Ivo’s house. But it is this close-knit, if claustrophobic, world that Urushadze builds, which seems to offer at least a representation of reconciliation. As the characters heal themselves, they are made human again. Though it may take some time, the Georgian and the Old Man (respectfully capitalised) – as Akhmed calls them – will become Ivo and Nika once more. After a disagreement, Martus storms out of Ivo’s house, and, Ivo sighs, in a throwaway remark to his two guests, ‘… and suddenly, he’s no longer your relative’. Recollections of how conflict erupted in this lush and subtropical region often begin with similar words.

Indeed, Tangerines brings home the legacy of Soviet nationalities policy through constant reminders of how ethnicity came to trump all other identity markers. As both Akhmed and Niko come to tolerate each other’s existence, their conflict enters the field of national pride. ‘You [Georgians] can’t make shashlyk at all,’ Akhmed claims, as the group sits round a fire in the woods. ‘In fact, you don’t even know how to fight.’ ‘You, my friend’, replies a seething Niko, ‘know nothing of history’.

Just as the early Soviet Union, that ‘affirmative action empire’ promoted autonomy in the field of politics, language and culture for hitherto suppressed nations, so did the late Soviet period witness a flourishing of national identification on the basis of history. Left, right and centre, the steadily-growing intelligentsias of Soviet republics invested in the idea of national history previously promoted by the Communist Party. This time, however, they were in control of the content.

National history became another world, a kind of escapist fantasy for the educated classes. Wartime leader of Abkhazian forces – and later president of the breakaway state Vladislav Ardzinba – was himself of an academic background, with a doctorate in history. So, too, was Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia’s president from 1991 to 1993, similarly obsessed with the glories of his country’s medieval past. Perestroika saw this charging of the nationality category unleashed, with grave consequences not only for Soviet power, but people living in newly independent states. To place the blame for conflict squarely on Soviet policy would be misleading, of course, but the social charge which nationality – that most modern of concepts – accrued during this period helped drive civil wars across Eurasia. Socio-economic collapse and political instability were, of course, crucial factors. As Akhmed later reveals, he came to fight in order to earn money for his family back in Chechnya.

National history became another world, a kind of escapist fantasy for the educated classes.

Tangerines’ focus on rituals, then, cuts through the nationalist rhetoric, which formed the background to the Georgia-Abkhazia war, and continues today. Just as the characters eat together, they make shashlyk together – a male ritual in itself. They raise toasts, albeit dark ones (‘Let’s drink to death!’). They exchange jokes (and threats), mean-spirited ethnic slurs. The scene prior to the final explosion of violence tells us of the value of this restoration: Akhmed and Niko swap tales of their dead friends. Akhmed, who was previously planning to kill Niko as soon as the latter was cured, comes back to express his regrets that Niko’s friends and countrymen died in the firefight which opens the film.  

Silence speaks louder than words

Yet, though a model of reconciliation is evinced through a lens of individual rehabilitation, Tangerines is held back, as a vehicle for reconciliation and recognition by its absences – what it doesn’t say.

There is, for example, no mention of the background to the war, and no mention of the events that led to hostilities. For Akhmed and Niko, history is something to be invoked – seldom discussed. This may seem like commonsense, against the background of a vicious inter-ethnic conflict, but as an explanatory model for viewers it seems lacking.

Bracketing thorny questions of intention and consequence do allow us to reach acceptance or tolerance, but when the self-serving power-grabs by Georgian and Abkhazian leaderships is left untouched, genuine understanding between two ‘opposites’ seems superficial, at best. Realising how elites manipulated rhetoric and action on both sides seems like a more fruitful means of bridging the gap between foes. Instead, the characters remain nationally-charged to one another, though not to Ivo, who comes to see them as surrogate sons.

Georgian loss

A sneaking sense can be found not only in press releases, but also in Tangerines itself, that the film is designed to privilege Georgian loss and suffering. Indeed, the film presents, similar to fellow Oscar nominee Giorgi Ovashvili’s 2009 film The Other Bank, Abkhazia as a site of Georgian loss, rather than Georgian and Abkhazian alike. The Georgian Niko dies in the course of protecting the other characters, and is buried overlooking the Black Sea. As a martyr, Niko sanctifies the ground with his blood. Importantly, in a feature film about the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict, which is shortlisted for the Oscars, there are no Abkhaz protagonists.

While a band of Abkhaz militants turns up on their way to the front – and still potentially murderous when it comes to Niko  – they are essentially peripheral. ‘They’ll come soon’ warns Martus. ‘The Georgians or the Russians’. The symbolism of the final shoot-out – where Chechen and Georgian join forces against Russian regulars – could not be stronger. The Oscars, as a high-publicity ‘Western’ event, are ideally suited to portray Georgian loss to a sympathetic international audience. Tangerines at times implies Georgia’s opponent in Abkhazia to be simply ‘Russians’ – while the narrative has some truth, it does not do justice to an internecine and complex conflict, and is potentially one which can be used to ignore Abkhaz grievances.

One is left with the feeling that Abkhazia (on film at least) is a foreign cause – a frontier where others come to land. Abkhazians may have comprised just 17% of the total population of Abkhazia in the 1989 census, but one senses that, in order to approach reconciliation, we should have an Abkhaz character on screen.

'For peace and freedom in Abkhazia', Sukhumi, 2012. Photo by Maxim Edwards (c)

From crates to coffins 

As Tangerines draws to a close, Ivo’s tangerine crates become coffins. We are offered a glimpse of the Black Sea as some kind of closure – the story of Ivo and his guests has been lost in the greenery and behind the paper-thin walls of village houses, abandoned or soon to be. These empty houses, gradually being reclaimed by nature – perhaps by tangerine groves – still greet visitors to this disputed territory today, from which over 200,000 people fled. Many Georgians still use the term raysky ugolok – a corner of heaven – for the Abkhazia they remember, as do the Abkhaz who remain there.

Tangerines, filmed in Georgia’s western coastal region of Guria, is a plaintive and (aided by Nias Diasamidze’s mournful soundtrack) poignant film. At a screening of the film in a Tbilisi cinema in November 2013 shortly after its release, the reaction of the predominantly Georgian audience – mostly under thirty – to this elegy for this lost territory was harder to determine. With little to no living memory of the Abkhazia they were being invited to mourn, how did Tangerines invite these young Georgians to reconciliate? This assumes, of course, that reconciliation is feasible – a far cry given recent moves to further integrate Abkhazia with the Russian Federation. The Abkhazia of Tangerines may just remain that raysky ugolok of Georgian collective memory, rewinding constantly, as Niko does to his cassette tape under Akhmed’s gaze.

Following the ambush on the Georgian soldiers outside Ivo’s house, Ivo, Margus, and the Estonian doctor push their vehicle off the road with all their might. It crashes into the forests below, and all traces of the attack are hidden from inquisitive visitors.
‘I thought it would explode,’ wonders the doctor.‘That only happens in the cinema,’ responds Ivo. ‘Cinema,’ he concludes, ‘is sheer deception’.

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