Tanna, the first feature film to be shot in the South Pacific’s Republic of Vanuatu, is based on a real-life Romeo and Juliet story from the 1980s. The filmmakers utilize a cast of locals, many playing themselves, to extremely good effect. Add the truly sumptuous visuals, and it is easy to understand why Tanna is a nominee for this year’s Foreign Language Oscar.
The film gets its name from the island where its story takes place. Directors Martin Butler and Bentley Dean lived there, with a local people called the Yakel, for seven months prior to the start of filming. Butler and Dean learned about Kastom, the set of principles by which the Yakel live, as well as stories of the tribe.
Tanna opens with a bit of foreshadowing. A man sweeps while performing a song about Kastom and its view that chiefs arrange marriages to keep peace between tribes. He adds, “Two lovers chose to walk a different path.”
Dain (Mungau Dain) is the chief’s grandson and presumed heir. He has been absent from the village but returns in Tanna’s early scenes. There is an immediate attraction between Dain and Wawa (Marie Wawa), a young woman preparing for her initiation ceremony. Kastom dictates Wawa marry outside the tribe, so any romance with Dain must be conducted secretly.
As a counterpoint to the solemnity, we have Wawa’s mischievous younger sister Selin (Marcheline Rofit). Selin drives her elders to distraction by ignoring them. More seriously, she has a tendency to wander away from the village. One day, Selin unknowingly walks within a few yards of two men from the rival Imedin tribe.
Yakel elders decide the unruly Selin needs help from their shaman (Albi Nangia). This takes the form of a trip to Tanna’s volcano, which the Yakel believe is the home of their Spirit Mother. Yahul, the Spirit Mother, is said to be the source of wisdom and respect. Selin does have a revelation while sitting at the volcano’s edge. Shortly afterward, Imedin men attack and badly wound the shaman.
Dain and Wawa run away together rather than accept this, infuriating members of both tribes. Yakel elders swear they will track down the two and deliver Wawa to satisfy the agreement.
Many readers (and viewers) will not have any trouble guessing the ending. That is hardly Tanna’s fault; similar narratives have occurred in any number of films. What makes Tanna special is the way it tells its story.
Bentley Dean’s cinematography is stunning, particularly in the scenes around the volcano. Antony Partos’ elegant score and Tania Nehme’s spot-on editing help to keep us in the moment. The cast performances would be considered quite good by any measure, but they are especially noteworthy considering most of the actors had never seen a movie camera prior to the shoot.
This is a beautiful film with a timeless message. See it with (or think about) someone special.
Tanna is available on YouTube, Amazon Video, Vudu, and Google Play.
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