By Andrea Gronvall andreagronvall@aol.com

The Gronvall Report: Zazu Urushadze on the Oscar-nominated TANGERINES

If you screened all the nominees for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, you couldn’t help but notice that three of the five titles—Ida, the winner from Poland, Timbuktu from Mauritania, and Tangerines, a co-production from Estonia and Georgia—center on war and its devastations.  Given how many regional armed conflicts currently plague our planet, many of them direct consequences of earlier prolonged violence, war remains one of the most relevant themes in movies today. Surprisingly, few predicted that American Sniper would be a breakout hit. Americans and other nations may be suffering war fatigue in the real world, but for a while, at least, they’ll still be flocking to theaters looking to make sense of it all, if sense can be made.

The setup of Tangerines, by Georgian filmmaker Zaza Urushadze, is deceptively simple: in 1992, following the dissolution of the U.S.S.R., war is escalating between Georgian nationals and Abkhazian separatists, the latter backed by Russia. In a corner of Georgia that a century ago was settled by Estonian immigrants, a small group of Georgian soldiers run up against some Chechen mercenaries working for the Russians. Only two barely survive the ensuing bloodbath: Niko, a Georgian Christian (Mikheil Meskhi), and Akhmed, a Chechen Muslim (Georgi Nakhashidze). A couple of ethnically Estonian farmers who are neutral rescue them, and the elder farmer, Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak, magnificent), decides to house both warriors secretly and nurse them back to health. His humanitarian gesture turns into a situation both perilous and surreal, as the two soldiers work at recovering just so they can finish the botched job of bumping off each other. But that turns out to be the least of their troubles.

Just as has been the case historically over millennia, in Tangerines language, ethnicity, land, and religion are significant factors that trigger and fuel combat. Writer-director Urushadze recently was kind to take time away from his elected job as head of the Georgian Filmmakers’ Union (which brings together important movie artists to network, help each other, and modernize and promote cinema in their country), in order to participate in the following interview by email.

Andrea Gronvall:  Your film Tangerines is more lyrical—in the sense of more poeticized, less dour—than Ida or Timbuktu, although it still builds to a powerful impact at the end. It shares with Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion an emphasis on honor and humanity, while in its focus on two enemy soldiers trapped in an almost absurdist situation, Tangerines also recalls Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land. Did you intend to frame your story as a parable?

Zaza Urushadze:  I wanted to direct a film based on basic human values—such as tolerance, forgiveness, and so on—as the lack of these values is one of the reasons of the ongoing wars. I didn’t intend to frame it as a parable, but I guess it turned out this way.

AG:  How did you strike a balance between pathos and dark humor?

ZU:  It was very difficult to find the right balance of tragedy and humor. Too much humor would have broken the drama and too little would have changed the message of humanity I was trying to convey. I thought a lot about the film’s tone and tried to use the humor effectively at key intervals, inserting it sparsely throughout the film.

AG:  The visuals in Tangerines are captivating, and at times almost painterly. The sun-dappled views of the tangerine orchard remind me of Van Gogh, and the way the light models the characters and table settings in the interiors brings to mind Cezanne. What were your visual influences in making this film?

ZU:  Even though I love art very much, I didn’t really have an influence, at least consciously. When I write scripts, I can already see the shots, like I’m already watching the film. It happens on its own.

AG:  The fluidity of the camera work also is impressive. How did you and Rein Kotov, your director of photography, arrive at a shooting strategy? Do you storyboard any sequences before you film? How pressured were you by your shooting schedule? What was the hardest shot, or scene, or sequence to realize?

ZU:  I shoot without a storyboard because it’s already in my head. I sit down with the cinematographer the day before the shoot and tell him about the angles and camera movement. We had a really busy schedule; we shot it in 32 days. The most difficult part was the gunfight scene, because if we couldn’t shoot this scene in one take, we would have had to repair the holes on the walls, the cars….

AG:  [SPOILER ALERT] That gunfight, the climax of the movie, is triggered by a short but pivotal conversation between Akhmed and an arrogant commanding officer, in a scene that is about ethnicity but hinges on language. Why does Akhmed hesitate to reply in Chechen when the officer commands him to?

ZU:   To answer your question I’ll need to delve into the interactions between the military officers and the subordinates who served under them before the Soviet Union broke up. Specifically [regarding language], the phrase “fuck your mother” is common in the colloquial speech of the Russian military. They use it as punctuation, without any intended insult implied—for instance, “Pass the salt. Fuck your mother.” However, for Caucasian peoples the term is highly insulting and often led to fights between officers and subordinates.

The scene in Tangerines that you are referring to takes place shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Many in the Russian military, after the loss of the Caucasus, could not adapt to the new reality and behaved in a demeaning manner toward citizens of former Soviet states. Akhmed was in the process of re-evaluating his ideas about the war, Georgians, and his preconceptions about both. The Russian officer was unable to trust a Chechen regardless of whether he was a mercenary fighting on the side of Russia or not, due to his bigotry towards former members of the Soviet Union and his feeling that Russians were superior to them.

Akhmed showed defiance and a refusal to be intimidated [and] out of context used the phrase “fuck your mother” to the officer—which, in front of his men, challenged his authority and would have tarnished his reputation had he done nothing.

AG:  Lembit Ulfsak as Ivo has great presence and authority on screen. Despite his age, Ivo is vigorous and very alert. One seldom sees characters like this in American movies. Were you trying to make a case for the wisdom of age over the rashness of youth?

ZU:  Ivo is a wise character, with a lot of experience in life and a mission to share with the youth: that life is short and very valuable.

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Feature films are suffering a kind of bad time right now, in my opinion, because the feature films that play in theaters are blockbusters. That seems to fill the theaters, but the art-house cinema is gone. If I made a feature film, it might play in L.A. and New York, a couple of other places, for a week in a little part of a cineplex, and then it would go who knows where. I built this to be on the big screen. It will be on a smaller screen, but it’s built for the big screen. You want a feature film to play on a big screen with big sound, and utilize all the best technology to make a world. It’s really tough after all that work to not get it in the theater. So I say that cable television is a new art house, and it’s good that it’s here.”
~ David Lynch

“The purpose of film isn’t to present the kindness of the world.”
~ Isabelle Huppert