Georgian film director Zaza Urushaze is still processing the fact that his film, Tangerines, is up for an Oscar for best foreign language film, a first for the submitting country, Estonia. The film, which takes place during the fall of the Soviet Empire in the 1990s, is about an Estonian carpenter living in Georgia who refuses to flee as war nears, instead helping his neighbor harvest his crop of tangerines. Tangerines won awards at several international film festivals before its historic Oscar nomination. Urushaze recently discussed the symbolism of tangerines, his methodology in working with actors and his personal connection to this story.
The music is quite striking from the opening frames—what were your musical influences?
The music in the film is a combination of Estonian and Georgian folk music, so this particular score is influenced by folk music. On a more general level, I’m a great fan of classical music; my favorites are Mozart and Beethoven.
Can you discuss the symbolic significance of tangerines in the film? There’s a lot of discussion of them throughout.
They are a symbol of peace and landing for me. Abkhazia is the land of tangerines, everybody in Georgia knows that the best tangerines come from there. And I really like the color of (them), which we decided to contrast to the bleakness of the war.
What was the most challenging scene to shoot?
The most difficult scene was the small battle scene at the end—we had a very limited time to execute it and it was really stressful… Very many details, coordinating lots of action, etc. This shoot was really more on the technical side than creative.
What drove you to tell this story of war-torn Georgia?
First of all, the war is not the main focus in the film. It is rather an intimate drama about relationships between our characters, about maintaining their humanity in difficult situations. The war was extremely painful for us Georgians; we lost many of our people, we lost our land… I lost friends in the conflict… All of this has affected me deeply and inspired me to make a film with an anti-war message. I’m really against institutionalized slaughtering and believe in equality with no difference of nationality or religion.
In one point in the film, during an action sequence, a van runs down into a canyon and we expect it to explode. When it doesn’t one of the characters declares, “Cinema is a fraud.” Can you comment on this moment?
As filmmakers we tend to love to hide in our stories by doing this cheating with ourselves and the audience. So, sometimes we can be very naive and I find it kind of nice. Then we expect that the world we create will affect a real world and here we might be naive as well. So, a little bit of self irony does not hurt sometimes.
It seems that each main character of the film—and Ivo and the Mercenary, in particular—carry a defining secret or mystery with them. What were your discussions with the actors in crafting these compelling characters?
I am quite a despotic director and I like to work with my actors in a very technical way. I do understand different methods, I know the “school of Stanislavski” well—still, my way to reach a good result is a more technical approach. We had long discussions with the actors before the shoot and they were ready when they came to set.
The film has a novelistic quality to it, with a great moral quandary at its center. With only a few main characters involved, the film unspools almost like a theatrical play. Can you comment on this?
I wanted to show that our characters are isolated from the world and everything is happening in a closed environment. My characters are sustained, and lonely on the edge of the world. Still, I believe that in cooperation with a talented DP, Rein Kotov, we were able to create quite a cinematic film.
Did aspects of the American Western influence how you envisioned the blocking of your scenes, where there is the tension between the Mercenary, the Georgian and Ivo?
I have to confess, I have been a great fan of Westerns, I just loved Sergio Leone’s films. So, maybe somewhere deeply inside I am affected indeed. Still, I can’t say that I was thinking about Westerns while creating the screenplay or directing the film.