Tangerines is a lesson in pacifism and compassion. Zaza Urushadze’s Oscar-nominated film is set during the 1992-1993 war in Georgia, a bloody war that involved Abkhaz separatists and supporters of the Georgian government, along with other groups fighting for one of the sides.
It tells the story of an elderly Estonian man who finds himself in the middle of a conflict when Chechen and Georgian soldiers have a shoot-out on his friend’s property. After all of them die but two, he feels obligated to care for a wounded Chechen mercenary, Ahmed, and a Georgian soldier, Nika, who is on the verge of death.
At the beginning of the film we find Ivo, the elderly man, in an empty village making crates to hold tangerines. The whole village, including his family, fled back to Estonia at the outbreak of the war, leaving him alone with his business partner Margus in the Estonian settlement. Together, they have a tangerine business, which, as they remark once the men are under their care, will not be doing well during the war.
Not surprisingly, the tension between the two soldiers is palpable in the house. Not only are they fighting on opposite sides of the war, but they had just killed each other’s friends. Interactions between them are cold at best and verging on violent at worst, but they both promise not to kill one another under Ivo’s roof out of respect to him for saving their lives. The Chechen man is very serious about this promise, claiming that he will kill the Georgian man the second he sets foot outside the building.
Despite their initial blind animosity, the two men are later forced to protect one another for the sake of Ivo’s safety. Some frightening situations arise when people stop by the house to look for the “other” that might be hiding out in the village. The soldiers defy the odds, though, and are even able to have civil conversations and sit outside the house together thanks to Ivo’s mediating.
The visuals in the film are haunting and beautiful, with the dreary atmosphere, fog and dirt roads around Margus and Ivo’s homes. The tangerines and a bright yellow cassette owned by the Georgian soldier are the only sources of colour in the war-torn landscape besides the fire coming from explosions.
The conflict that the film is set in is complicated if you aren’t familiar with the history and geography of the area. For the film’s purposes, simply knowing that the two men were made enemies through war is enough for a basic understanding; but, doing a bit of background research before watching the film would make the context of the interpersonal relationships more clear. Regardless of the complex nature of the conflict, the message of pacifism shines through the fog and makes for a compelling film.
As Ivo tells the Chechen soldier, does it matter whose side we are on if in the end, we all share the same fate?
Tangerines is available now on DVD from First Run Features.