It was to national disappointment that Georgian director Zaza Urushadze’s Tangerines did not get an Oscar at last night’s Academy Awards. For Georgia’s glass-is-half-full crowd, however, the film’s nomination for Best Foreign Film was a sufficient accomplishment after almost two decades of creative stagnation in the country’s film-industry.
Technically, Tangerines is an Estonian film. But although it was submitted and also co-sponsored by Estonians, it is essentially a Georgian film, directed and mostly acted by Georgians.
Set during the 1992-1994 war with separatists in Abkhazia, the film tells the story of an Estonian carpenter and farmer Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak), who saves two wounded warring combatants, Akhmed, a Chechen (Giorgi Nakashidze) supporting the separatists, and the Georgian Niko (Mikheil Meskhi). As the enemies recover from their gun wounds at Ivo’s house, they also slowly recover from their hatred of each other.
Yet for all its noble aims, the film’s peace message is so loud that it comes at the expense of verisimilitude. In one awkwardly written and played bit, the fighters even exchange condolences to each other for their respective sides’ losses.
Such an exchange of courtesies may tick off all the boxes in a wish-list for a reconciliation-promoting NGO, but, for many Georgian viewers, who know how characters like Akhmed and Niko would normally speak and act in real life, such scenes damaged the movie’s artistic value.
Nonetheless, the film boasts a well-structured and paced script, with handsomely done visuals and an atmospheric setting for the three-men drama as a microcosm of the larger crisis happening outside Ivo’s house.
Some film-wonks, however, predicted that the film’s focus on the conflict in Abkhazia, little known to most international audiences, diminished its chances against the more universal themes depicted in Poland’s Ida (the eventual winner) and Russia’s Leviathan. (Another Georgian-directed, Abkhazia-themed film, Corn Island, was shortlisted, but did not make it to the final round.)
Ultimately, though, Tangerines’ status as a nominee for Best Foreign Film was enough to ensure that the Oscars were a sort of Super Bowl for many Georgians. The film marked the second time a Georgian director had made it into the finals for Best Foreign Film. (In 1997, the first go, Nana Jorjadze’s A Chef in Love, gained favorable reviews, but did not secure the prize.)
Even film-critics dispensed with the usual carping, and wished Tangerines every success.
The same could be said for most Georgians. On tenterhooks, everyone had apprehensively followed the misfortunes of the film-crew as it traveled to Hollywood. First, the actors had to get the money for tuxedos; then, Mikheil Meskhi (Niko) lost his passport in Istanbul. Next, the team’s luggage with their shoes did not arrive in LA.
Film-fans stayed up all night to watch the actual ceremony, with officials and members of the cinema-crowd tuning in from the country’s largest movie hall in the capital, Tbilisi.
In the end, Tangerines may not have walked off with an Oscar, but few Georgians seem bitter about the loss. The film’s presence in Hollywood alone marked the ongoing renaissance of Georgian cinema, many believe. The film-community hopes that the nomination will attract more resources for Georgian film, and blaze a trail for future Oscar-finalists.