Georgian Nationalism, Post-Soviet Identity, and Tangerines
by Michaela Mitzenmacher
In the film Tangerines , directed by Zaza Urushadze one of the main characters, a Georgian fighter, Nika, is trapped due to his injuries with a Chechen fighter, Ahmed, in an Estonian man’s house. The Estonian man, Ivo, makes them promise not to fight in his house. The two loathe each other and vow to kill each other and yet throughout the course of the film they
never make an attempt to hurt each other, only bicker about the nature of the conflict. Nika ironically winds up arguably sacrificing himself for Ahmed towards the end of the film, when a group of Chechen soldiers accuses Ahmed of being a Georgian spy, Nika begins to shoot these soldiers from the window. At first I was not quite sure what to make of Nika’s fate, but as I rethink the film I begin to see it as an aspect of post-Soviet solidarity. In this moment Ahmed and Nika had put their differences aside, casting a new light.
The film has a rather critical view of Russian interference. For this film, the civil war is primarily one of Russian imperialism. Nika articulates this in an argument with Ahmed, telling him he is sitting on Georgian land. When Ahmed refutes that he is sitting in an Estonian house in Abkhaz land, Nika responds by asking him if he’s read any books and knows any history, referring to Georgia’s history of being colonized by imperial Russia. Ironically, this is a history he shares with Ahmed, a Chechen soldier whose homeland was also historically colonized by Russia. At the end of the film we see Ahmed drive back to his homeland, Chechnya. As the credits roll the audience understands that Chechnya will face its own conflict with Russia only three years later. This highlights the similarity between these two characters, further emphasized by Ivo’s statement towards the end of the film that had Ahmed died instead of Nika, he would have also buried him next to his son. To an outsider like Ivo these ethnic conflicts are irrelevant, and in this film’s eyes, are maintained by Russia rather than true to the cultures of the characters.
On the flip side to the film’s attitude to Russia, Tangerines seems to have an equally cynical view of the state of Georgian nationalism and highlights the tragedy it causes towards post-Soviet people. In this way the film shows how Georgian culture is ultimately exclusionary. While one may interpret Tangerines as an endorsement of Georgian nationalism against Russian
interference, the film uses the character of Ivo to highlight some of the difficulties nationalism brings. Ivo, a man who had built his life in Georgia selling tangerines has to leave for Estonia by the end of the film. A man who lives there and built his life there must leave due to the fight between Georgia and the rebels which he has nothing to do with. In spite of living there his whole life he cannot stay in Georgia because he clashes with the ethno-nationalist identity. He is excluded from Georgian identity due to his Estonian heritage, an invader who must leave. The audience is invited to feel a sense of tragedy as he is forced to flee his home he built, leaving much like Ahmed does towards an uncertain future.
This criticism of Georgian nationalism is also reflected in the character of Nika. Before tragically dying, Nika reveals to Ivo that before the conflict he had no real experience in a battlefield before going to war, not even military training. He simply went to war out of the belief that it was the right thing to do. He also reveals before the war he was an actor for Georgian theater. To me the choice of making Nika an actor is rather deliberate considering Georgia’s rich cinematic history dating as far back as 1909 and having had historical admirers
like Frederico Fellini (Hälbig, Ralph). With this in mind we can see Nika as a vessel of Georgian culture, ultimately dying at the hands of war. The director uses this to show that Georgian culture, while is what Georgian nationalism intends to preserve, are fundamentally incompatible ideologies.
There is a meta aspect to this scene, as Nika explains that in spite of his acting career Georgia hardly makes films anymore since there is no money. Throughout the history of film Georgian film had mostly fallen under the umbrella of Soviet film, being heavily restricted by the guidelines set and therefore unable to create a distinct identity even after the nation’s independence until very recently. Carmen Gray’s article “New Georgian cinema: discover a fresh generation of filmmakers reviving a national tradition” notes the new trend of Georgian cinema being rather reflective of their newfound independence and the 90s Civil War, especially the Abkhaz Conflict. Which in turn draws parallels to Russia’s current involvement not just in Georgia through the Abkhaz and Ossetian conflicts (Ostrovsky), but also within other post-Soviet states. Tangerines is not simply a historical drama about Georgia, but a single film part of a greater trend in Georgian cinema with similar themes of post Soviet identity and Georgian nationalism also reflected in films such as In Bloom and House of Others (Gray). However, Tangerines in particular is notable for its transnational message going as far
as its production by casting Estonians as the Estonian characters and it having an Estonian producer. While the film has a lot more to say about Georgian identity than Estonian identity in the context of nationalism, the film itself is built of the cooperation of two post-Soviet nations.
Zaza Urushadze’s film Tangerines , through the interactions and story of its characters and the transnational aspects of its production highlight the plight of post-Soviet peoples and the importance of post-Soviet solidarity. Said importance is made clear when considering the success of the film internationally, which in many ways has highlighted this struggle around the globe to its viewers.
- Duffy Toft, Monica The Geography of Ethnic Violence: Identity, Interests, and the Indivisibility of Territory, Princeton University Press, 2006, pp. 87–106.
- Gray, Carmen. “New Georgian Cinema: Discover a Fresh Generation of Filmmakers Reviving a National Tradition.” The Calvert Journal , 4 Aug. 2017.
- Hälbig, Ralph. FILMFESTIVAL: NEW GEORGIAN CINEMA at TOFIFEST Film Festival in Poland (Tofifest.pl) , Georgia and South Caucasus, 18 June 2010.
- Ostrovsky, Simon, director. The Russians Are Coming: Georgia’s Creeping Occupation . YouTube, VICE News, 2015.