Tangerines directed by Zaza Urushadze is one of the five nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film Award. Tangerines is a keenly-observed drama of compassion and hostility set in the midst of armed conflict in the Caucasus. It focuses on two Estonian immigrant farmers who live in northern Georgia where they grow tangerines.
Despite looming conflict between Georgia and Abkhazian separatists in their area which causes any other civilians to flee, they decide to stay behind just long enough to harvest their fruit – and get caught in the fighting. A skirmish near their house leaves two wounded soldiers unable to walk away – one a Georgian, the other a Chechen mercenary fighting on the Abkhazian side. Ivo, one of the Estonian farmers, takes in both these wounded men, who vow to kill each other when they recover from their injuries.
But Ivo has himself been through hardship over his life, and gradually the two wounded men’s hostility to each other begins to be tempered. Director Zaza Urushadze uses the story of four individuals to tell the much larger story of the ongoing violence and ethnic hatreds that were left behind after the break-up of the Soviet Union. And he finds some hope of peace in his conclusion.
Zaza Urushadze is an award-winning Georgian director. His work explores difficult subjects in a humane manner that crosses national boundaries. He takes non-populist positions that set humane values above politics. In his belief, otherwise the art loses its purpose. Zaza’s recent films are: Three Houses (2008, di- rector, writer, producer), Stay With Me (2011, director), The Guardian (2012, director) – top of the Georgian box office 2012
Bijan Tehrani: What motivated you to make TANGERINES?
Zaza Urushadze: I believe there is a serious lack of tolerance in current world. My first impulse was to draw attention to this pressing issue. I feel that all human beings are equal with no need to separate themselves by religion, nationality, etc. I don’t agree with institutionalized slaughtering. This a very important subject for me, personally. Many lives were consumed by the Abkazian war in 1992, as well as a beautiful piece of our small Georgia. Losing friends in the conflict brought very sad moment in my life that impacted me to inspire change through my filmmaking.
BT: This is a very strong, but delicate antiwar film, how did you come up with story of your film?
ZU: I was playing with an idea of making a film on the 1992 war. When I learnt about the abandoned of a 150-year-old Estonian settlements in Abkazia, I felt that I have found an interesting angle for the screenplay. Empty villages with almost nobody there that was a very intriguing subject for me.
BT: Have you based TANGERINES’s characters based on real characters or people you knew?
ZU: Loosely – yes. My grandfather pretty much had the same values as our main character Ivo. It was quite easy to use him as an inspiration. Also as for Nika – there was a famous Georgian actor, who went to this war without mentioning it to anybody. We only heard about this after he got killed there…
BT: How did you go about casting of your film and how did you work with your characters?
ZU: Firstly, I knew Estonian actor Lembit Ulfsak very well and I was writing Ivo’s part already thinking of him. I was very happy that he accepted the part after reading the script and also for the opportunity to work with him. He’s an Estonian legend. All other actors were picked during regular auditions. Of course I knew Georgian actors Giorgi Nakashidze and Mikhail Meskhi very well, still they came through casting sessions. They, as well as all Estonian actors, are very well known in our small countries.
BT: The location of TANGERINES is like a character in the film, how did you develop this and how did you pick the location?
ZU: I wanted the film to be set in a very remote place, to show our characters isolated from the world, very far from everything and forced to create their own little world.
As for locations, the most important was the tangerine plantation. I believe that the contrast between vibrant color of tangerines, peaceful orchards and the hostility and bleakness of war is indeed quite a strong element in this film. We were looking for a beautiful tangerines grove and it took us quite a while to find a suitable one. After that it got easier – we built houses, even planted trees and some vegetation, but that was already more on the technical side.
BT: Please tell us about visual style of your film.
ZU: It is quite a classic film format which suites the story and was the only possible approach for me. As for colors, I wanted to bring out the orange of tangerines as a contrast to the darkness of war. At one point, we had an idea to shoot in monochrome, but this would have been too obvious and we decided not to draw excessive attention to it.
As for cinematography, the film is quite chamber and to make it more dynamic, the camera is slightly moving in most of the shots and the audience might not even register it, but it creates a nice flow of the film.
BT: How has been the reactions of the audiences and critics to TANGERINES?
ZU: I’m very proud to say that it’s quite remarkable that both – audiences and critics – tend to like this film. The film has been received very well worldwide and just the fact that it has earned a Golden Globe and Oscar Nomination is unbelievable achievement for me and also for Georgia and Estonia.
We had standing ovations at Santa Barbara Film Festival last week. We received compliments on the underlying message of humanity and audiences are genuinely touched, expecting to see a war film that in the end makes an anti-war statement.
BT: How do you see the chances of TANGERINES winning the Oscar?
ZU: We have one fifth of a chance, like other four nominated films.
BT: Please tell us about your next project
ZU: We are discussing this every day with the producer and we will openly talk about it very soon, but it would be too early to announce now.
At this moment I am mostly interested to make a good drama with maybe some elements of thriller. But definitely with some lightness and humor in it.