Oscars 2015 Foreign-Language Spotlight: Estonia's 'Tangerines'

Courtesy of Allfilm

Zaza Urushadze's anti-war drama is the Baltic country's first-ever nominee for an Academy Award.

There was a moment during the filming of drama Tangerines, one of the five nominees for the best foreign-language film Oscar, when director Zaza Urushadze clearly understood why people from the tiny Baltic state of Estonia once were drawn to settle in his Georgian homeland.

Shooting on location with a mixed Estonian-Georgian cast, he observed how profoundly different the two groups were. "Georgians are very emotional; Estonians are quite the opposite, much calmer. When the Georgian cast and crew arrived on location, they were noisy, shouting, laughing. The Estonians were upset, worried there would not be silence when needed," recalls Urushadze, 49.

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"By the end of the shoot, the Estonians had become less reserved -- they had become more like us, emotional and demonstrative," he adds. "When they got back home, friends and colleagues hardly recognized their behavior." When asked if that northern, Baltic sangfroid likewise had rubbed off on the Georgians, making them calmer, he laughs, saying: "There was no balancing effect on us Georgians!"

Tangerines is Urushadze's fifth movie and the first Estonian film shortlisted for an Oscar. The film is a majority co-production with Georgia (the first Estonia-Georgia co-production); its $680,000 budget was supported by state funds from both countries as well as by Eurimages.

The project was conceived after Urushadze attended a retrospective of Georgian films at Estonia's Tallinn Film Festival, where his 2008 feature, Three Houses, opened the festival. Ivo Felt, one of Estonia's leading producers, told him the story of three ethnic Estonian settlements that had existed for more than a century in Georgia's Black Sea region of Abkhazia until a bitter post-Soviet civil war during the early '90s drove them out, along with hundreds of thousands of ethnic Georgians. The Estonian government helped to resettle them safely in their homeland.

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Urushadze was inspired: Through the simple tale of two old Estonian men whose stubborn determination to harvest their crop of tangerines is interrupted when war comes to their doorstep, a complex piece of history could be told. "It took two weeks to write, from first to last draft," says Urushadze. "I barely slept."

Shot after the brief 2008 war between Russia and Georgia but before the eruption of the current conflict in Ukraine (in which Russian-backed rebels are battling the forces of a western-backed government in Kiev), the film features Estonian actor Lembit Ulfsak as an elderly man whose concern and care for a wounded Chechen mercenary (Giorgi Nakashidze) fighting on the Abkhazian side is challenged by his murderous hatred for another wounded man, a Georgian conscript, whom he also is sheltering from the violence.

The critically acclaimed film played to sold-out screenings when it was released in Estonia and Georgia. It can be seen in the U.S. on Netflix with a theatrical release under negotiation.

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Urushadze now is in talks with a U.S. producer for what may be an English-language project and also is discussing a new script with Felt. He says that whatever he does after Tangerines, in which the only woman seen is a beautiful girl in a photo, he definitely will cast actresses as well as actors. "I don't want to make another film without women," says Urushadze, adding that to be nominated for both the Golden Globe and the Oscar feels "like a fairy tale."

Submitting country Estonia
Director Zaza Urushadze
Top awards Audience Award, Mannheim-Heidelberg Film Festival; International Competition Award, Bari Film Festival; Audience Award, Warsaw Film Festival

Read up on the film's competitors in the foreign-language race, which are from Russia, Argentina, Poland and Mauritania.