Sunday, May 24, 2015

'Tangerines' anti-war movie review

I had the opportunity to catch a screening of a well-reviewed foreign film, Tangerines (2015).  Tangerines tells the story of an Estonian farmer, Ivo, in wartime Abkhazia (northwest Georgia, between Russia and Turkey).  Ivo doesn’t care about the war or to take sides; all he wants is to harvest his crop of tangerines and be left alone.

The remote mountain village Ivo shares with his business partner, Margus, is exquisitely beautiful.   It could be the scene on the back of a postcard.  The village is also a ghost town, as the inhabitants fled in the early days of the war.  To Ivo’s horror, the war comes to his doorstep only days before the tangerines are to be harvested!

After a loud firefight rages past the village, Ivo and Margus check the battlefield for survivors.  There are two:  a Chechen (pro-Russian) mercenary and a Georgian soldier.  Both are badly wounded and require medical care, and both are taken to Ivo’s house where they begin their recuperation.   Ivo and Margus must then find a way to keep the two warfighters from killing each other while they heal.  They must also hide one or the other from enemy troops, depending on what nation’s army or militia passes through the contested area.  As if they didn’t have enough problems, they still need to find a way to harvest an entire crop of ripe tangerines!

This movie is delightful and thought-provoking in a variety of ways.  For starters, there’s not a whole lot of war violence in this movie.  The violence and the impact of the war are mostly implied, so this film is heavily performance-based.  I like the lead actor’s performance as Ivo; he’s a stern grandfather who imposes his authority in his own house, but will also surprise people with a subtle-yet-irreverent joke.  Ivo comes across as James Stewart in Shenandoah, but with a touch of Denis Leary in The Ref.

Next are Ahmed, the Chechen mercenary, and Niko, the Georgian soldier.  Ahmed is an extroverted, often loud-mouthed warrior who often vocalizes his intent to kill Niko.  Niko, an introverted intellectual, cites Ahmed’s ignorance and invites him to follow up on his threats.  Both characters grow as the plot unfolds.

For added context to the film, the story takes place during the Abkhaz War of 1992-93.  There were a series of small wars across Eastern Europe and Northwest Asia once the Soviet Union disintegrated.  Apart from countries seceding from the nonexistent Soviet Union, other nations and “autonomous” republics within former Soviet republics also tried to secede.  Abkhazia today is a de facto independent state and partly occupied by Russia, though it’s internationally recognized as a part of Georgia.

Another element of truth is that the film presents the intermingling of ethnic groups.  Aslan is a white, blue-eyed Chechen Muslim whereas his comrades have Middle Eastern features.  Other Europeans are seen with mixed features as well.  The absurdity of the ethnic cleansing that happened in this war is reflected in the film when, more than once, different soldiers and militiamen from various nations’ troops have to ask what someone’s ethnic background is.  The jackbooted thugs asking can’t tell, because most characters in the film look the same and speak the same language, despite being ethnically different.

Abkhazian war veterans and their families march in a parade.
One sad irony that most American viewers won’t pick up lies in Ahmed’s political loyalties.  Abkhazia’s war of independence was turned into a proxy war for Russia, one of several in the 1990s by which the Russian government hoped to weaken its newly independent constituent republics.  Though a mercenary, Aslan is aligned with Russia and believes in Abkhazia’s right to secede from Georgia.

However, Ahmed is also a devout Muslim, like most Chechen people.  But like most Russian mercenaries in the 1990s, he is probably a veteran of the Soviet Army.  The year following the end of the Abkhaz War, 1994, was the start of Chechnya’s wars of independence.  Chechens heavily rallied around Islam and their war against the Russian government became a holy war.  This leaves the viewer to wonder, should Ahmed survive the Abkhaz War, which side would he choose in 1994: Russia or Chechnya?

I truly appreciated the libertarian message entrenched in the movie.  Apart from the obvious theme that uses war to appeal to the viewer’s humanity, the film also stresses peace and commerce.  Throughout the movie, both Ivo and Margus lament the war and how it’s taken all the men away from productive work, like harvesting their tangerines for an daily wage.  Ivo and Margus repeatedly try to recruit militiamen from any side to work as day laborers in the orchard.  Their focus on peace, unhampered commerce, and ignoring nationality to increase economic cooperation, is a vivid reflection of the pillars of Austrian economics.

Tangerines is a movie that gets it right.  It's also a valuable tool for libertarians to touch minds in eastern Europe.

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Tangerines movie poster courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and used according to Fair Use. Abkhazian parade picture by 'Apsuwara' and used via CC BY-SA 3.0 license, and was obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

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