'Tanna': Venice Review

Tanna Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
An enchanting real-life account of trouble in paradise.

Australian documentarians Bentley Dean and Martin Butler make a distinctive move into narrative features with this folktale set among the tribal people of a remote South Pacific island.

It's not often you hear the mischievous games of laughing children punctuated by the vexed cry of a boy yelling, "Catch her! She stole my penis sheath!" But then, the tiny island setting that gives Tanna its title, and the purity of the traditional tribal villagers who enact a story tied to their recent past, give that odd line a disarming innocence. This unique narrative debut from Australian documentary team Bentley Dean and Martin Butler is a soulful folktale encompassing both tragedy and hope. Told with captivating simplicity and yet richly cinematic, it combines ethnographic and spiritual elements in a haunting love story with classic undertones, affording a glimpse into a little-known culture.

The filmmakers lived for seven months on the island, a dot in the Pacific Ocean at the bottom of the Vanuatu archipelago, with a population of 30,000. That includes remote tribes living high in the mountain rainforests, who have rejected colonial and Christian influences and returned to their traditional "Kastom" system of laws and beliefs. Dean and Butler based themselves in a village called Yakel, where they absorbed stories and observed ceremonies, shaping the drama with co-writer John Collee, and with the input of the local people. The key inspiration was an event that occurred in the late 1980s, best revealed only at the end of the film, which led to a change in tribal marital laws.

The passing of knowledge and experience among generations is witnessed throughout; in particular, the role of women in this patriarchal culture resonates through the watchful gaze of young Selin (Marceline Rofit). Hidden in the jungle, she innocently spies on the shy, clandestine courtship of her beautiful older sister Wawa (Marie Wawa) with the village chief's orphaned grandson Dain (Mungau Dain). As preparations are underway for Wawa's initiation as a mature woman, we share Selin's curiosity about her own future of love, marriage and motherhood.

However, the preteen girl's undisciplined nature (she's the penis sheath snatcher) necessitates that Selin's grandfather (Albi Nangia), the village shaman, be enlisted to teach her respect. He walks her across the ghostly ash plain to the island's active volcano, known as Yahul. That spitting furnace is the people's "spirit mother," and as the story unfolds it's revealed to be both a potentially wrathful and a protective force. When Selin's grandfather is assaulted by warriors from a hostile neighboring tribe called the Imedin, and the shaman's life hangs in the balance, the village is rendered instantly vulnerable. The Yakel elders call a meeting to broker peace between the clashing tribes — or as they put it, "to bury the club" — exchanging pigs and drinking kava to seal the agreement.

In its lyrical blend of earthly reasoning with spiritual, magical and elemental forces, Tanna often recalls screen depictions of African folktales. The decisions of Chief Charlie (played by real-life Yakel leader Chief Charlie Kahla) come to him via songs that extol the virtues of forgiveness, outlining how wisdom comes through suffering, and killing brings only sorrow.

However, Charlie's proud grandson Dain can't let go of his grief and anger over the savage killing of his mother and father by Imedin warriors. When, during the detente meeting, Charlie promises Wawa in marriage to the son of Imedin Chief Mikum (again played by his real-life counterpart Chief Mikum Tainakou), both Dain and his secret love rebel against the decree. They flee into the forbidden part of the forest like a tribal Romeo and Juliet, putting themselves and the Yakel villagers in danger of violent reprisals.

The subsequent drama, in which their people pursue the fugitive lovers in the hopes of reaching them before the Imedin, and convincing them to comply with the Chief's wishes, could perhaps move more swiftly. But it's not lacking in suspense or in affecting moments of profound feeling. Nor is the film without humor, notably in the influence of English settlers, such as Mikum's son being named Kapan Cook, or when a brush with the wacky Christian locals convinces Wawa and Dain to try their luck in the wilderness instead.

Without ever forcing their points, Dean and Butler also provide evidence of the resilience of Kastom even as young people threaten to abandon traditional ways. The closing ceremonial sequence involving men, women and children is deeply stirring in this respect.

For a film made by what was fundamentally a two-person crew (Dean behind the camera, Butler on sound), Tanna is sharp on all counts. Its crisp visuals are aided by spectacular natural light and landscapes that range from lush rainforest — with its dazzling green foliage full of lacy ferns, and its lagoons and waterfalls straight out of paradise — to pristine beaches, mountains cloaked in mist, and the charred earth and rugged rocks around the volcano. Transporting music by Antony Partos with electronically enhanced vocals by Lisa Gerrard also contributes to the film's enveloping spell.

What lingers most, however, are the faces of the people, full of dignity, pride and even telltale hints of joy to be playing versions of themselves — sharing their lives in a medium most of them have never experienced even as spectators, let alone participants. Speaking in their native Nauvhal language and clad only in sheaths for the men and grass skirts for the women, they are irresistible natural performers informed by a culture in which storytelling plays a vital role. And one couldn't ask for a more tender or memorable pair of star-crossed screen lovers than Wawa and Dain.

Cast: Mungau Dain, Marie Wawa, Marceline Rofit, Chief Charlie Kahla, Albi Nangia, Lingai Kowia, Dadwa Mungau, Linette Yowayin, Kapan Cook, Chief Mungau Yokay, Chief Mikum Tainokou
Production company: Contact Films
Directors: Bentley Dean, Martin Butler
Screenwriters: Bentley Dean, Martin Butler, John Collee, in collaboration with the people of Yakel
Cultural director: Jimmy Joseph Nako
Producers: Martin Butler, Bentley Dean, Carolyn Johnson
Director of photography: Bentley Dean
Music: Antony Partos, Lisa Gerrard
Editor: Tania Michel Nehme
Sales: Visit Films

No rating, 104 minutes