Tanna

tanna-rev Tanna (2016)    Lightyear Entertainment/Drama    RT: 100 minutes    No MPAA rating (some violence, nudity)    Director: Martin Butler and Bentley Dean    Screenplay: Martin Butler, Bentley Dean and John Collee    Music: Antony Partos    Cinematography: Bentley Dean    Release date: TBA    Cast: Mungau Dain, Marie Wawa, Marceline Rofit, Albi Nangia, Charlie Kahla, Lingai Kowia.      Spoken in Nauvhal w/English subtitles

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 It takes dedication and perseverance to make a movie like Tanna, one this year’s nominees for Best Foreign Film. Directors Martin Butler and Bentley Dean spent seven months living among the people of the village of Yakel, located on the island of Tanna in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu. They got to know the people, their traditions and rituals before filming a single frame. Instead of professional actors, they hired the Yakel (also the name of the tribe) to act out the story of two young people who defy tradition and tribal law in the name of true love. Tanna is equal parts National Geographic documentary and Shakespearean tragedy.

 tanna - posterBased on an incident that happened in 1987, Tanna tells the tragic tale of Wawa and Dain, two young people in love. The women of the village are preparing Wawa for the initiation ceremony that will mark her passage into womanhood. She’s been in love with Dain, the chief’s grandson, since they were children. They want to be together but can’t because of the Kastom (the strict set of rules to which the tribe adheres). All marriages are arranged by the chief. Consequently, Dain and Wawa have to sneak around to be alone together. The only one that knows about their forbidden love is Selin, Wawa’s spirited and rebellious younger sister.

 In order to tame the girl’s wild spirit, her grandfather (also the village shaman) takes her to see Yahul, the active volcano that acts as their spirit mother. While there, the old man is murdered by members of the Imedin, the neighboring tribe they’ve been warring with for generations. By way of making peace, the chief offers Wawa as a bride for their chief’s son. They accept the offer. Wawa wants no part of it so she and Dain run away together. Men from both tribes go looking for them. If Wawa doesn’t go through with the arranged marriage, there will be no peace between the two tribes.

 For me, one of the best things about movies is their power to transport you to other worlds. In Tanna, Butler and Dean take the viewer to a remote place and inside an unfamiliar culture untouched by the modern world. This particular place has a timeless quality. Looking at it, you can’t tell what year it is. It could 1987 or 1687, who knows? The Tanna live a simple lifestyle without modern conveniences or technology. Yet in some ways, their culture isn’t all that different. Love is still a complicated matter. It’s also universal. No matter how primitive or advanced a culture may be, love is a constant.

 The story is strikingly similar not only to Romeo and Juliet but also to the 1931 film Tabu, a South Seas romantic drama directed by F.W. Murnau. Either way, it’s a tale oft told but rarely with the raw emotional power of Tanna. It was because of the 1987 incident that tribal law was changed to allow for marriage for love. The directors strip their film of Hollywood superficialities and go for something real and authentic. Why do you think they cast the Yakel (dressed in customary grass skirts and penis sheaths) rather than trained actors? They never even saw a movie or a camera before. The directors walked them through their parts (the character and actor names are the same) before calling action. For a group of people that never even saw a movie before, they do a tremendous job. Their faces are so expressive. Their performances are natural and unforced. The cinematography is simply gorgeous. Tanna is very picturesque. Butler and Dean, who co-wrote the screenplay with John Collee, make great use of natural light and locations. The dense foliage and spewing lava add a level of intensity. The directors make the island a place of beauty and wonder. Tanna is a fascinating film on many levels, especially an anthropological one. It’s always interesting to learn about other cultures, especially one you’re never likely to encounter in real life. I can see why Australia made it their official entry in this year’s Oscar race. It’s a real must-see! 

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