Monday, January 11, 2016

A lesson in peace from Estonia

Estonia is a small country that most non Europeans are scarcely conscious of.  I first became aware of it as I had a university room mate with an Estonian heritage.   Later when researching information for a basketball book learned that Estonia, despite its small size had been a significant European basketball power and had contributed to the growth of basketball in Canada.  Incidentally I learned that they had been overrun by the Soviet Union and had been squelched.  Now that they are independent they find themselves inundated with many Russians who were moved there during the occupation. and feel some loyalty to the mother country.

The movie, "Tangerines" was the official Estonian entry for the best foreign film for the 2015 Oscars. My first reading confused me.  It was said to be an Estonian movie in some quarters, but others stated it was a Georgian production and others even thought a Russian movie. The writer/director, Zaza Urushadze is Georgian, the location is Georgia The main actor, Lembit Ulfsak is Estonian, others are Georgian. Like many movies there certainly was an international involvement at both the financial and artistic levels.  I relied on subtitles, but understand that Estonian, Georgian and Russian were all spoken.

I understand there was a war involved in Georgia, formerly part of the Soviet empire, but didn't understand how a neutral Estonian could be involved.  Estonians settled in Georgia in the late 1800's, maintaining some of their culture, but most left when war broke out.  Russians were trying to maintain their imperial hold on former members like Georgia.  In 1992 a civil war broke out as part of Georgia (with help from Russia) wanted to break away.  The movie takes place in this context.  The situation was very complex involving Chechen mercenaries, Muslim factions and Russian preferences.  The internal politics are confusing, but the dynamics can be understood.

The story is very simple.  Two Estonians have stayed behind in order to finish packing a crop of tangerines.  Fierce fighting takes place in their area and it happens that two fighters of opposite allegiance are severely wounded and rescued by the two Estonians.  One in particular expresses a desire to kill the other who responds with bravado.  The Estonian taking care of both plays a mostly hands off mediating role that eventually succeeds.

The mechanism as often is that it is hard to hate someone when you get to know them and share some of their life.  Those at the top benefit while those at the bottom suffer.  A number of details occur naturally and the two antagonists gradually learn to respect each other (and their mutual caretaker) as humans.  There are many positive ways it could have ended and I credit the writer/director choice as very poetic, subtle and even realistic.  It is not a happy ending, but in another way it is hopeful.

The director/writer and actors do a terrific job.  This is more than just an interesting story, but an important story told in a professional manner.  One commenter pointed out that there was not a single female in the movie (though a photo gets attention).  Women have a reputation of being effective pacifiers (which seems so logical one can understand why belligerent males want to keep them out of negotiations).  The logic of peace being preferable to war is understandable even to some of us males.

"Tangerines" attracted attention being selected for many film festivals and getting a good share of award nominations.

Limbit Ulfsak has a role in another Estonian movie "The Fencer"  (not seen) nominated for the 2016 Oscars.  This one is directed by a Finn, Klaus Haro, who did  "Mother of Mine."  Other "Tangerines" participants also contributed to "The Fencer." helping to propel it to Golden Globe and Oscar nominations.  These two films illustrate good ideas, and good entertainment can come from anywhere.  Open our minds and we all will benefit with peace being one of the benefits.

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