blog / Film: Tanna (2015)

Sun, 25 October, 2015

Film: Tanna (2015)

Co-directed by Bentley Dean, Martin Butler, and made in collaboration with the Yakel people of Vanuatu, new film Tanna tells the truthful story of a girl who flees an arranged marriage to be with her lover. The film won two major prizes at this year’s Venice Film Festival - Best director of photography and the audience award for best feature film of International film critics’ week. Today, we take a closer look at this cinematic breakthrough, currently being screened in Australia.



Tanna tells the story of how a girl (played by Marie Wawa) and her young lover (played by Mungau Dain) are torn apart after she is promised to another man as part of a peace deal, in a violent land dispute with a neighbouring tribe. Out of love and desperation, Marie and her distraught beau decide to run away together, triggering a tribal war and tragedy.

Sydney Morning Herald reported that the story emerged after co-directors Bentley Dean and Martin Butler, in Vanuatu at the time, witnessed a heated village dispute over a marriage arrangement involving such a scenario - a young woman distraught over being forced to marry a man she did not want to be with. Eventually, the decision was overturned to allow the promised bride to marry the man of her choice.

The wronged suitor had to then be compensated, a process that involved a settlement of gifts of pigs and kava, and the promise of a different bride at a later date. Given the centrality of arranged marriages to conflict resolution, social order and peacekeeping, the stakes in such negotiations were very high.



"It was extremely powerful,” Butler told Sydney Morning Herald, “it wasn't just some sort of ceremonial number; everyone was really deciding whether these people could be together or not. And we thought this was amazing, that the tradition was still that strong." Discussions in relation to what was appropriate - and the fate of the young people involved  - continued for months. 

"Really touchy stuff like how you conduct an affair, sad stuff, an amazing exchange of stories which became the film you saw," Dean said. Tragic cases of suicide by young lovers unwilling and unable to submit to custom marriages are what prompted chiefs to begin allowing love marriages. 

And so it was, that after a spate of suicides related to forced marriage in the 1980s, the people of Tanna began to rethink marriage as a matter of personal choice. Jimmy Joseph Nako, the translator, cultural guide and occasional sound man on the film, explained the self-protective conservatism of his people. 

"We know that town is there, western influences but whatever: if we see a western influence that will help our culture, we accept it. If it will destroy our culture, we say 'no, thank you'." He told Sydney Morning Herald. "This film is like a public declaration to the world and to our culture that we accept love marriage, but at the same time we maintain our kastom."



The first film to be shot completely in Vanuatu, Tanna features breathtaking cinematography that takes full advantage of the majestic tropical and volcanic landscape as the setting for what is, at its core, a painful universal tale of forbidden love. It features the Yakel people, one of the South Pacific's last traditional tribes.

Co-written by the people of Yakel, the cast speak their own tribal language, Nauvhal. Yakel people also make up most of the crew on the movie. It was made over 14 months by Dean and Butler, who had previously worked together on two projects about Aboriginal history for the ABC – Contact and First Footprints.

Dean had visited Vanuatu in 2004 for work and afterwards was keen to return with his family - ironically attracted by the idea of exposing his children to a place largely untouched by Western influence. Dean wanted to make a feature on the village tribes of Tanna, who maintain a self-sufficient way of life based on ‘kastom’ laws, jungle gardening and fishing.

In fact, so independent were the people of Yakel when the filmmakers arrived, that no one there had ever seen a full film. In order to communicate what it was they were trying to make, Dean told Sydney Morning Herald that they strung up a sheet as a screen and showed the Yakel people Rolf de Heer's brilliant film Ten Canoes, as an example of what they had in mind.

After months of developing a story idea with them through discussions, the Yakel people eventually took control of the process. Ben Bohane writes that Dean and Butler “consulted at every point and showed them the rough cut and final cut for their approval. Perhaps the best compliment they could pay me in the end was when they said ‘Bentley, this is our film now’.” 



Beautiful first time actors Marie Wawa and Mungau Dain play the star-crossed couple at the centre of the love story, bringing raw authenticity to their roles. And although much of the cast and crew have not seen many films, they now are the stars of one. This translates on screen not as inexperience, but a realness and cultural authenticity that cannot be imitated.

Travelling to festivals and screenings internationally to promote the film has been an eye opening experience for them - press in Venice and in Australia have shown a rather predictable fascination with the “culture shock” being experienced by the Yakel actors and crew as they are immersed in Western society for the first time. 

During filming though, it waa the co-directors who had to adjust to village routines - as Sydney Morning Herald reported, all work stopped for kava drinking in the afternoon. Most of the roles were democratically cast, too - including the leading man Mungau Dain, whom everyone agreed was the best-looking man in Yakel, and therefore the obvious choice.

The consultative approach Dean and Butler took to collaborate with the Yakel people to make this film, ensured that the stars felt a sense of ownership of the project, and that filming itself did not disrupt their garden work and way of life too much. The order of what to work on - film or food gardens - came from above: "If the chief says OK, it's the film today, we do it," Translator Jimmy Joseph Nako said.  "We live under the power of the chief."



Tanna is garnering high praise from audiences as a powerful story, a work of art and a medium of rare insight, as many are exposed to Melanesian culture on the big screen for the first time. A good review in the Sydney Morning Herald can be read here, whilst Variety featured a glowing assessment of Tanna here

The film had its Australian premiere at the Adelaide film festival this month, and screenings in Melbourne took place on Wednesday and Friday. Tonight, it screens at Dendy Opera Quays in Sydney with a Q&A session with cast and directors.

All upcoming special screenings can be found on the Tanna Movie facebook events page here.

Tanna will be released in select theatres on November 5th.

View the trailer for the film here.


WORDS by Pauline Vetuna.

Image Credits: 

Photos courtesy of Tanna Movie Facebook page.


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