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Review: Estonians as Conflict Mediators in 'Tangerines'

For a film written and directed by Georgians, "Tangerines" is an unexpectedly effective portrait of the positive sides of the Estonian national character, hinting at talents for peacekeeping and conflict mediation.

Caught in the middle of the bloody Abkhazian conflict of 1992-1993, it's the Estonian characters who set the philosophical tone, evoking quiet resignation and a pacifist message.

In particular, Lembit Ulfsak is dominant. A taciturn greybeard emanating authority, he plays a carpenter who is one of only a few Estonian men to stay behind in one of the Abkhazian villages settled in the 1800s. 

He is building crates for his neighbor pal's (Elmo Nüganen) tangerine harvest, but the war won't wait for the fruit to be picked. Suddenly, it's at his doorstep, and in a near-remake of the Russian film "The Cuckoo," Ulfsak's character finds himself playing nursemaid to wounded fighters from opposing sides. The strongest scenes are the ones where the Chechen mercenary and the Georgian soldier recover enough to communicate, clash, and develop a budding friendship.

"Tangerines" has a small, all-male cast, and there isn't much here that couldn't be adapted for the stage. The war is like many wars. Periods of tense silence are punctuated by sporadic violence. More sinisterly, soldiers show up to shake down civilians and gauge their loyalty.

In some ways, the motive force of the film - the war and the casualties it claims - may hasten the film on to a conclusion that seems a trifle conventional. Ulfsak is striking enough as a Solomonic figure here that I even fantasized about a civilian prequel where he solves everyday problems of the fractious, more temperamental villagers. I wanted to know more about these Estonians in Abkhazia.

As for historical accuracy, don't look too deeply here. The real Estonian Abkhazian villagers were perhaps not so "straight out of Tammsaare" as Ulfsak's and Nüganen's characters in their muddy ideal landscape. As one character quips to another as a bus pushed into a ravine fails to explode, "cinema is really all about pulling one over on people." All the same, it's a flattering portrait - surprisingly even-handed coming from Georgia considering the recentness of the meddling and bloodshed of 2008 - and a finely paced, tightly written meditation on the pointlessness of killing.

- Kristopher Rikken 

Tangerines (Estonian-Georgian co-production, directed by Zaza Urshadze, running time 90 min., in Russian and Estonian with English subtitles) showings at Black Nights Film Festival on November 22, 17:00 and November 25, 17:00. 

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