Review: the Oscar nominated ‘Tanna’

The Australian produced Tanna was one of the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at the most recent Oscars, and it’s not hard to see why. An enthralling blend of cinematic scope, verite rawness, and Shakespearian storytelling, Bentley Dean and Martin Butler’s Tanna is equally a classical drama, a poignant parable based on true events, and an insight into a culture rarely glimpsed that’s generously provided by the people living within it.

Tanna takes place among the Yakel tribe on the South Pacific island of Vanuatu, and is based on true events from1987 that have become a part of the folklore of the local population. The Yakel are self-sufficient people living in the forests and jungles of the island, and they adhere to Kastom, their system of belief. They seem like a joyous, happy, united tribe at first, but quickly we learn that an offshoot tribe blames one of the Yakel elders for the failure of their crops. The rift leads to a violent act that could to lead to war. When the two factions begin peace talks, the Yakel offer up a young woman named Wawa (Marie Wawa), to be a wife in an arranged marriage. The opposing tribe accepts, but this news doesn’t sit well with young warrior Dain (Mungau Dain), Wawa’s love and the grandson of a murdered Yakel elder. Wawa and Dain make a plan to sneak away from their tribe to avoid the arranged marriage, but the island offers them few places to hide, and the Yakel are in hot pursuit in an effort to stave off war, save face, and preserve Kastom.

Tanna filmmakers Dean and Butler have a background in documentary filmmaking that serves the story well. Dean and Butler allow the Yakel to tell their own version of the story with minimal direction and interference. The directors place their film entirely in the hands of people – all of them non-actors – who already know how the story should be performed and told. There are very few shots in the film that feel staged for greater cinematic effect, and the landscapes of Vanuatu naturally lend themselves well to film. Most characters are captured in simple close-ups of medium shots, and the results feel realistic and unobtrusive. There are asides that describe tangential customs, like the trading of pigs and the digging of kava root, that lend to the lived-in sense of setting and viewpoint. It’s a film that’s assuredly dramatic and fictionalized, but it feels more captured than directed or coaxed.

Dean and Butler let this story of young love serve as an honest reflection of who the Yakel are. They might be seen by outsiders as indigenous peoples who wear only grass and reed skirts, but there are also moments where characters admit to a knowledge and understanding of the outside world and that they’re not to far removed from modernity. One elder tries to convince Wawa that the arranged, loveless marriage is a good idea by using his meeting with the British royal family as an example of what they’re trying to accomplish. There are various tribes on the island with different beliefs and adherences to tradition, not all of which are glimpsed, not all of which are helpful to Wawa and Dain as they make their getaway, and include a Christianity based tribe that seems alien to the main characters and the audience in equal amount. A great deal of the story is also witnessed by and told from the perspective of Selin (Marceline Rofit, who gives the best performance), a mischievous child with knack for always being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In many ways, Tanna is about Selin’s future and how the events that are transpiring will either help or hinder future generations within the tribe.

Balancing the raw with the dramatic, Tanna could easily be cited as a masterful piece of direction by Dean and Butler, but it’s more of a testament to the Yakel and their ability to convey their story to a worldwide audience without sacrificing their identities. Dean and Butler only facilitated bringing the story to an audience, but this film couldn’t have been made without the Yakel in such an emotional and vivid fashion. It’s a perfect example of a story that can’t and shouldn’t ever be faked or manufactured. While the parallels between the reality behind the story and Shakespeare are fairly obvious to make, Tanna remains a unique and immersive work of world cinema from a culture that will likely never be depicted in such a way on film again. It’s not an ethnography, but it is something that will stand forever as a testament to the soul and creative spirit of those who helped to make it.

Tanna opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Friday, June 2, 2017.

Check out the trailer for Tanna:

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.