With extensive consultation comes an enhanced sense of authenticity in Tanna, the first movie shot entirely in Vanuatu.
The first movie shot entirely in Vanuatu, Tanna opens a window into the South Pacific archipelago nation's indigenous culture. Amid rampant greenery and in the shadow of a thundering volcano, ancient custom dictates choices, tribes fight and marriages are arranged along strategic lines. The feature peers into a world far away from most seen on screen or experienced by viewers, with its makers doubling as conduits, passing on a sliver of the traditions and tales from the titular island. Indeed, they're not the only parties to this rendering of the ways of the Yakel people or the retelling of a true account of star-crossed lovers.
Tanna is the result of writer/director/producers Martin Butler and Bentley Dean (Contact) spending seven months living with the community and cooperating with them to fashion the film. With such extensive consultation comes an enhanced but unassuming sense of authenticity; this isn't a movie that gazes upon its characters and their tropical home from the outside, but evolves from within their midst and is spoken in their Nauvhal tongue. The documentarians and fellow scribe John Collee (Frackman) follow in the footsteps of Rolf de Heer's Ten Canoes and Charlie's Country, mixing ethnographic observation with a folklore-based narrative. Once again, it proves a striking combination, delving into the existence of its subjects while unravelling one of their past dramas.
Within the Yakel tribe, Wawa (Marie Wawa) has come of age, which means that her betrothal to a man chosen by Chief Charlie (Chief Charlie Kahla) is imminent. As the women take her through the rituals and preparations required for this eventuality, she secretly pines for a love-based marriage with the true object of her affections, fellow villager and Charlie's grandson Dain (Mungau Dain). Alas, a rift with the neighbouring Imedin people and adherence to the area's Kastom system of governance dictate that her wedding will not be to the partner of her choosing. With tensions raised after the Imedin attack the local shaman (Albi Nangia) — the latest in a lengthy spate of hostilities, and something that a union between the two groups is designed to assuage — Wawa and Dain run away; however their fleeing leaves the remaining Yakel members in fear of vicious retaliation.
While the spectre of fellow fated paramours such as Romeo and Juliet haunts Tanna and its picturesque, poignant restaging of events that occurred in 1987, and though the blossoming romance between Wawa and Dain is tenderly handled via unsurprisingly naturalistic performances and a patient sense of pacing, forbidden love isn't the only strand the film weaves into its textured tapestry. Just as the feature acts as a vessel to transport audiences into an otherwise largely unseen culture, the amorous antics provide a framework to impart further insights into the troubles of enforcing tradition within changing times and an evolving populace, as well as an appreciation of the combination of spirituality and survival that defines Vanuatu life.
Further, just as the story finds its primary source of success in using the tools at its disposal — aka recapping the circumstances of an actual tragedy that highlighted tribal troubles — so does the remainder of the film. Of course, the vibrant, exuberant cast is paramount. Whether they're singing songs to the ash-spewing landmass they call their spirit mother, decrying a stolen penis sheath or arguing in their version of community court, the untrained local players bring intensity and honesty to their roles, including precocious youngster Selin (Marceline Rofit), who acts as the feature's unofficial guide.
Their impassioned faces and figures enliven the screen, though all that graces Tanna's frames proves alluring. In a case of the movie's imagery mirroring the themes in an arresting and astute manner, beauty seethes in alternatingly luscious and stark surroundings, as shot documentary-style by Dean also acting as cinematographer. Here, brightness can be found in the interlaced greenery of the rainforest as well as in the crimson that flies from the volcano, and in clandestine dalliances as much as dealing with long-held disputes. It also radiates from filmmakers taking the real-life plight of their collaborators from muddy island shores to the medium of cinema.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Directors: Martin Butler and Bentley Dean
Australia | Vanuatu, 2015, 104 mins
Release date: November 5
Distributor: Bonsai Films