Tanna plays like a Polynesian Romeo and Juliet, except the star-crossed lovers at the centre of this story are from the same tribe. Australian documentarians Bentley Dean and Martin Butler keep the narrative simple and ramp up the atmospherics in their fiction debut.
On Tanna, one of the Vanuatu islands in the South Pacific, the peaceful Yakel tribe live together in harmony, the only blight on their existence being the neighbouring Imedin tribe, who are more inclined to use violence as a solution to problems.
Within the Yakel tribe, young Wawa (Marie Wawa) and Dain (Mangau Dain) have become smitten with each other. When the tribe’s leader offers up Wawa as a wife to the Imedin tribe to settle a dispute, Wawa and Dain find themselves at the centre of an escalating dilemma. Unwilling to let go of each other, they risk full-on war with the Imedin people should they not adhere to the old traditions (Kastom) that include arranged marriages. In a rare moment of sly humour, the older generation even raise Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip as an example of the virtues of arranged marriages.
As evidenced by the mirroring of cast and character names, the non-pro actors mostly play variations of themselves. With no prior exposure to the techniques of acting, (none of the cast had seen a film before the directors showed them Ten Canoes) there’s a lack of sophistication to their performances which isn’t by any means distracting.
While Dean and Butler make sure the dialogue and situations remain as unaffected as the performances, Dean affords himself a little more ostentation with his cinematography, presenting some strikingly stylised imagery at times.
Even more arresting is the sound design. Featuring the crack combo of composer Antony Partos and Lisa Gerrard on vocals, it’s a highly evocative score that elevates the drama at key moments.
With the local Nauvhal being the only language spoken in the film, Tanna has become only the second Australian film to make the shortlist of nine titles nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar (the first being Samson and Delilah, which ultimately missed out on a nomination).
This may be the first film shot and set on the island, but Dean and Butler never forget the golden rule of imbuing their story with local detail while presenting a theme with universal resonance.
Tanna is currently screening exclusively at ACMI
Richard Leathem @dickiegee