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Australia/Vanuatu 2015
Directed by
Martin Butler / Bentley Dean
100 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Chris Thompson
4.5 stars


Synopsis: In one of the last traditional tribes in the South Pacific, a young girl, Wawa (Marie Wawa), falls in love with her chief’s grandson, Dain (Mungau Dain) but when an inter-tribal war escalates, she is unknowingly betrothed as part of a peace deal. The young lovers run away, but are pursued by enemy warriors intent on killing them. They must choose between their hearts and the future of the tribe, while the villagers must wrestle with the influence of changing times and the idea of individual freedom as opposed to their desire to preserve their traditional culture.

Filmmakers Martin Butler and Bentley Dean lived with the Yakel tribespeople for seven months while making this remarkable film based on events that happened in the 1980s. What’s surprising is that this tribe who live in such isolation and still adhere to the old traditions of Kastom culture, agreed to the idea despite having never seen a film before.To remedy this, Butler and Dean showed them Rolf de Heer and Peter Djiggir’s Ten Canoes (2005) to give them an idea of how such a story might be told with authenticity and respect.

Authenticity in film often means that the actors and filmmakers have worked long and hard to create a representation that is so close to the thing depicted that we sometimes forget that we’re watching the craft of actors and technicians. We saw such a film earlier this year with Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent and the same is arguably true for Mel Gibson’s 2006 film, Apocalypto. Here, though, authenticity means just that; the tribe’s Chief plays the Chief, the Medicine Man plays the Medicine Man and so on. (although apparently Dain was cast because he was the most handsome warrior in the tribe!) The danger, of course, is that you end up with something caught between documentary realism and cinema vérité style. That’s not the case with Tanna which, whilst far from having polished acting and tightly written dialogue, still delivers compelling and quite moving performances in a story that is engaging and, at times, quite suspenseful.

The story, reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet ,is powerful and moving, pitting the rash actions of young love against the pressing interests of harmony between tribes. Wawa and Dain are terrific together. Their performances are genuine and innocent and the chemistry between them exudes from the screen. We want them to succeed in their quest for love, we understand their rejection of the more modern expectation on them when they briefly take refuge in a mission on the edge of their primitive world, and we fear for them as the angry, vengeful warriors approach. But it’s not a one-sided story. We’re also invited to understand the tribal politics of the situation; the shame that the young lovers have brought upon their Chief and the determination of their tribespeople to salvage their shaky accord with their rivals by exacting a deadly punishment on the offenders.

The scenery is, as you might expect, breathtaking and the imagery that ranges from tribal villages to lush jungle to the island’s volatile active volcano are beautifully captured by Dean who doubles as cinematographer. (in fact, he won the Best Cinematography award at last year’s Venice Film Festival). The symbolic power of these visuals are much more than just pretty pictures; they are just as intrinsic to the narrative of the film as the performances and the spare dialogue. This is the first film made in Vanuatu and it’s a very fine achievement. More than just a worthy exercise in cultural equality, it’s a gripping, emotional and captivating story -, one well worth the confidence of its having been offered up as a contender for the 2017 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.




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