Alerted in mid-February to Tanna’s first screening foray into the UK’s provinces, Rona and I decided to get ourselves over to the Harbour Lights Picture House in Southampton from our base in Devon to see what all the fuss was about. We were not to be disappointed in the slightest by the cinematographic triumph that unfolded before us that evening.
Having now watched the film in its entirety, it is completely understandable to me why it has attracted such a high degree of attention around the world, both from film critics and film festivals alike. It is an extraordinary movie – intense, passionate, moving, spiritual and beautifully filmed. A complete one-off that explores the universal human themes of war and peace, love, loyalty and community, set entirely in the context of a small, South Pacific island which forms part of the Vanuatu archipelago.
The film was made completely on location in Tanna by two Australian filmmakers: Bentley Dean and Martin Butler. Both had previously worked together in making documentaries. Bentley Dean had initially visited Tanna in 2003 to make a film about the John Frum movement for Australian television. The storyline is based on actual events on Tanna and was developed by the Australian filmmakers in close collaboration with the Yakel people. The film was shot is entirely in two Tannese languages – Nauvhal and Nafe and is subtitled in English throughout.
Based around the actual 1987 suicides on Tanna of two young star-crossed lovers, the story is a modern day, South Pacific tragedy. It follows the same dramatic arc described in Romeo and Juliet which in its time was the latest in a tradition of tragic romances stretching back to antiquity. In Tanna the film, as in Shakespeare’s play, the untimely deaths of Dain and Wawa, the eponymously named protagonists of the movie, help to enable reconciliation between those left behind. One important consequence of the very unfortunate events of 1987 was that “love marriage” between young people became socially acceptable as opposed to the Kastom or arranged marriage which had previously been the norm.
In addition to the central theme of a love frustrated, the storyline touches on the rivalry and competition that exists between neighbouring tribes on Tanna for land and resources. Also explored is the nature of community in that part of the world and how the desires and wishes of the individual are generally subordinate to the needs and security of the group in Melanesian societies. Yasur or Yahul as it is called in the film, the volcano plays an important role as the spiritual home of the Tannese and a kind of Mother Earth figure.
The stars of the show are an attractive young couple called Dain and Wawa of the (real) Yakel tribe. Dain is the handsome grandson of the Yakel Chief who has recently returned home from his travels. Wawa is a beautiful young woman who has harboured feelings for Dain from her childhood. In the context of the film, the Imedin people are their ancient enemies and there have been many conflicts in the past between the two peoples. In fact, it is mentioned that Dain witnessed the savage killing of his parents in their own garden by men of the Imedin tribe.
Dain and Wawa fall secretly in love and decide to marry which is forbidden under Kastom. When Wawa comes of age, her community decides that she should be married off to a man from the Imedin tribe. In love with Dain, she protests vehemently against this but to no avail. In one of the most revealing moments of the film she is told by an elder that “love marriage” is not permitted. Arranged marriage is at the heart of Kastom and it is about building alliances between warring tribes and preserving the peace. When Wawa continues to protest, she is told “It is not about you – it is about us” as the women of the Yakel continue to pile the pressure on Wawa to do the right thing for the tribe.
Undeterred, Dain and Wawa continue their romance and are discovered. Dain is expelled from the Yakel and sent into the wilderness. Preparations continue for Wawa’s marriage into the Imedin tribe until she runs away to find Dain. They try to find refuge in a Christian village on Tanna but that does not work out. In the end, frustrated that there seems no way for them to be to be together, they decide to take their own lives on the slopes of Yahul (Yasur) by eating poison mushrooms. This takes place in a spectacular scene with Yasur erupting violently in the background. Their bodies are discovered by searchers from their community and are brought back to their village. At their funeral ceremony in the village, the Chief of the Yakel declares that “We resisted the colonial powers and we resisted the Christians but if Kastom is to survive then we must make a place in it for “love marriage”. And so, it came to pass on Tanna.
One feature of Tanna that is extraordinary is the truly amazing standard of the acting by people who are not professional actors and who may have never watched a film in their lives. It has been reported that cast members did not regard the filming as being difficult because their roles were “performing what we were used to in our daily life!” If you do have the opportunity to watch Tanna on a big screen take it. You will not be disappointed. The quality of the script, acting and cinematography are simply stunning in a film shot in extraordinarily beautiful locations that nonetheless must have been pretty challenging at times for its makers. The fact that Tanna has been nominated for a raft of awards including best foreign language film at this year’s Academy Awards, is a worthy testament indeed to the brilliant quality of its storytelling.