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‘Tangerines’ indicts the perils of belief entrenchment

“Tangerines” (“Mandariinid”) (2013 production, 2015 release). Cast: Lembit Ulfsak, Elmo Nüganen, Giorgi Nakashidze, Mikheil Meskhi, Raivo Trass. Director: Zaza Urushadze. Screenplay: Zaza Urushadze. Web site. Trailer.

We all get stuck from time to time. Whether it’s the funk of a rut or something more debilitating, the feelings it engenders are often quite strong. That can be especially true when elements of spite work into the mix, producing emotions that take on a life of their own and often prevent us from seeing our way clear of it. Such is the case in the gripping Estonian wartime drama, “Tangerines” (“Mandariinid”).

Set in 1992 in the Abkhazia region of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, the film follows a trio of principals caught up in a bitter civil war. Abkhazian separatists, backed by Russians and mercenaries from Chechnya, sought to take control of the area and thwart the efforts of Georgian peace keepers charged with quelling the rebel uprising. Initial skirmishes escalated into full-scale battles, and many were killed. Caught between these warring factions were communities of ethnic Estonians, whose ancestors immigrated to the region nearly a century earlier and lived peaceful lives as farmers for generations. By the time the war began, many had fled to their Baltic homeland, but a few brave souls remained behind, including the pivotal character in this story.

Despite the conflict going on around him, Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) strives to continue leading the quiet life he always has. Even though most of the aging farmer’s friends and relatives have fled to the safety of their native Estonia, Ivo has chosen to remain behind for personal reasons. He spends his days tending his land and building wooden shipping crates for his neighbor, Margus (Elmo Nüganen), a tangerine farmer who has opted to tough it out long enough to harvest his crop before retreating to his homeland. But, as much as the two holdouts try to maintain their normal routines, they can’t escape the impact of a war that has now come to their doorstep.

Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak), an aging Estonian farmer living in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, seeks to maintain a normal life in the face of a growing civil conflict in the Academy Award-nominated drama, “Tangerines.” Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

The relative peace of Ivo’s existence is abruptly shattered when a small but nasty firefight takes place between rebel and Georgian forces at the edge of his property. Most of the combatants from each side are killed, but two of them – one from each faction – somehow manage to survive. Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), a Chechan mercenary, and Niko (Mikheil Meskhi), a Georgian soldier, suffer serious injuries, but care is at hand. With the aid of Juhan (Raivo Trass), the local physician, Ivo takes in the survivors, tending to their wounds and slowly nursing them back to health.

However, despite Ivo’s good intentions, his humanitarian efforts quickly get put to the test. When the survivors learn of each other’s identity, they threaten to kill one another, but Ivo will have none of that; he insists that there be no bloodshed inside his home. Ahmed and Niko begrudgingly agree to their host’s terms, but they vow to make good on their threats once they’ve recovered.

Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze, right), a Chechan mercenary fighting for rebel forces in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, holds highly fixed views of his cause in director Zaza Urushadze’s gripping war drama, “Tangerines.” Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

In the meantime, the enemies struggle to abide by the uneasy truce Ivo has brokered. Tensions bubble inside the home while growing ever stronger on the outside. But, at the same time, something else unexpected happens: The sworn foes begin to communicate, and they learn they may not be as different from one another as they’ve allowed themselves to believe. Attitudes start to change, especially when perilous circumstances arise that place everyone in the house in jeopardy, regardless of their political or ethnic affiliations. In fact, what begins to emerge has the potential to transform all concerned – provided they manage to survive.

Beliefs are marvelous metaphysical tools, and they can work wonders, as anyone who practices conscious creation – the philosophy that maintains our reality arises from those beliefs, thoughts and intents – can attest. They’re especially useful in an existence like ours, one based on physicality, which requires “substantive” (i.e., strongly held) beliefs to supply the ample “density” needed to materialize a reality that operates according to such ground rules. However, when our beliefs become so entrenched that we lose sight of why we developed them in the first place, they can blind us in our manifestation efforts, turning our thoughts into rigid, inflexible dogma. That can be especially troublesome in connection with beliefs related to conflict.

Some may wonder why anyone would even want to create combativeness, though it can serve a useful purpose for working out certain issues and learning certain life lessons that may not be attainable in other ways. However, the beliefs associated with such manifestations can pose a real danger when we allow them to grow so powerful that we can’t see our way out of them or why we allowed their formation in the first place. We lose sight of the larger context into which they were introduced and see only the highly charged aspects of what they’ve wrought. It’s as if we develop a sort of metaphysical tunnel vision that we can’t look beyond.

Needless to say, such outlooks are incredibly limiting. They prevent us from being able to see options or to comprehend our ability for adopting change. And, when they’re viewed solely in terms of achieving a particular goal, we run the risk of engaging in un-conscious creation, the practice where we pursue specific outcomes at all costs, with no regard for the consequences or our responsibility in the matter.

Margus (Elmo Nüganen, left), an Estonian citrus farmer in the war-torn former Soviet republic of Georgia, aided by his neighbor, Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak, right), hopes to tough out his circumstances long enough to harvest his crop before fleeing to his homeland in the Oscar-nominated drama, “Tangerines.” Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

These kinds of issues litter the metaphysical landscape in “Tangerines.” Ahmed, Niko and their colleagues (all of whom are now deceased, by the way) have allowed themselves to become prisoners of their own beliefs. They’re so invested in personal hatred that they don’t even know why they’re angry at each other. Their constricted viewpoints threaten to suffocate them, and to what end? If they ever hope to get themselves out of these paralyzing circumstances, that’s the question they must begin to ask themselves.

That’s where Ivo’s presence comes into play. By dictating terms that the antagonists will not kill each other while under his roof, he opens up a space for Ahmed and Niko to reconsider their stances. And some part of them must have wanted that to happen, too; otherwise, they would not have drawn Ivo and his conditions into their presence. Their host serves as a de facto mediator in their conflict, forcing them to think about what they’re doing and why, as well as whether they want to carry through on their stated intents.

The experience of the three principals in this story demonstrates that change (and even transformation) are indeed possible – if we allow it. Of course, for this to happen, they must realize that they always have choices available to them (even under circumstances where they believe they don’t) and then be willing to act on them. Whether they (or we) follow through under these conditions depends on their will and desire to make it happen.

A shift in perspective can lead to a shift in beliefs, which, in turn, can lead to a shift in outcomes. There are many instances where this can breathe a breath of fresh air into existences that have grown stale and stagnant. But, in my view, it’s especially crucial for bringing about resolution in matters of warfare, where beliefs can become almost irretrievably fixed, leading to profound and prolonged suffering, simply because we can’t see (or won’t allow ourselves to see) our way out of our circumstances. Yet, if we’re willing to take those tentative but courageous steps toward adopting a wider view, we just may be able to see our way clear, to embrace new beliefs that are more beneficial to both us and those with whom we interact.

One would hope that the end game in all this is a realization that we’re all fundamentally connected, no matter how seemingly separate and distinct we may appear to one another. Such awareness might be exactly what it takes to help us realize that, when we attack one another, we’re essentially attacking some part of ourselves. Why would we want to do that? If we’re unable to come up with a compelling reason for doing so, then maybe we won’t be so quick to do it again (goodness knows we’ve certainly been doing it long enough). This would free up our consciousness to use it for other more interesting, more productive pursuits. Let’s hope we’re able to follow through with that.

The strain of war weighs heavily on Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak, right), a peace-loving Estonian farmer living in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, in director Zaza Urushadze’s gripping war drama, “Tangerines.” Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

“Tangerines” is a brilliant piece of filmmaking, a movie that’s taut, suspenseful, absorbing and deeply affecting. Zaza Urushadze’s superbly crafted atmospheric direction effectively creates a tense, claustrophobic edginess, punctuated by a strong underpinning of melancholy that comes with the heartache of war. The picture’s excellent ensemble cast features outstanding performances across the board, especially those of Ulfsak and Nakashidze. These elements, along with the film’s haunting soundtrack, make for a moving cinematic experience that one won’t easily forget. And, for its efforts, the picture deservedly earned Oscar and Golden Globe Award nominations for best foreign language film. The picture is currently playing in limited release in theaters specializing in foreign and independent cinema, and DVD preorders for the film are already being taken by major online retailers.

Seeking resolution to our self-imposed stalemates can be an arduous process, especially if we can’t even identify their existence. But taking a step back to get a bigger picture of things can help us break the logjams and find ways to move forward. And, as “Tangerines” shows, in matters of warfare and conflict, such realizations can’t come soon enough.

Copyright © 2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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