Tanna: Into the Heart of the Inferno

(Australia/Vanuatu, 100 min.)
Dir. Bentley Dean, Martin Butler; Writ. Bentley Dean, Martin Butler, John Collee
Starring: Mungau Dain, Marie Wawa, Marceline Rofit
Admittedly, all I know about Vanuatu is that it offers the setting for at least one season of Survivor and that Werner Herzog visits some nifty volcanoes at the island nation in his outstanding new documentary Into the Inferno. These volcanoes form the backdrop of Tanna, a visually stunning and eye-opening drama shot and set on the island of Vanuatu, as outdated customs get voted off the island. Tanna, a co-production between Australia and Vanuatu (and the former’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film in this year’s Academy Awards race), is a rarity of a film. Not only is it shot entirely in the Nauvhal language, the film is made in close collaboration with the people of Yakel, a small village on the island of Tanna. It’s their story told in their own words.

Complaints that Tanna comes from the hands of two Australian directors don’t seem fair, either, since filmmakers Bentley Dean and Martin Butler show the utmost sensitivity in collaborating with the people of Yakel. (Perhaps that’s why the film has been well-received without incident.) The film credits a cultural director (Jimmy Joseph Nako) and gives the villagers their due in the screenwriting cards. Tanna draws upon a true event in Yakel’s history in which two tribes confronted the value of marrying by love rather than by arrangement after two young members of one tribe became tragic pawns to inter-tribal warfare.

The ripe allegorical drama sees Wawa (Marie Wawa) and Dain (Mungau Dain) as two lovers in one of the last traditional tribes in the South Pacific. As such, they’re hope for the future of a culture that endures despite the effects of industry and colonialism. These young lovers become Vanuatu’s own Juliet and Romeo after a feuding tribe kills one of Yakel’s elders, thus inciting tribal warfare. The cruel twist comes when the Yawel chief, Dain’s father, agrees with the feuding party that a marriage between tribes is the only way to bring peace. He offers Wawa’s hand to the rival chief’s son, ostensibly putting the desires of his own son and prospective daughter-in-law in check with the needs of the tribe.

Tanna keeps its timeline very ambiguous to the final title cards, though, and Dean and Butler inject the film with an ageless power. The film shows evidence that the story takes place in a contemporary setting as elements of modernity appear fleetingly. Shreds of a magazine highlight the marriage between Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip as a favourable example for arranged marriage, while missionaries and gaudy retro clothes introduce the new world as Wawa and Dain explore the further corners of the island for a safe haven.

The two lovers flee and hunting teams from both tribes set forth to track them down and restore honour to the villages. As the spark of romance between Wawa and Dain burns like the lava in the omni-present volcanoes, the people of Yakel awaken to the possibility that it’s time to get with the times and celebrate love. How appropriately modern.

Dean and Butler make outstanding use of their documentary roots by filming Tanna in an intimate observational style akin to direct cinema and verité. Tanna is a film in which place and people are key, and aesthetics are stripped and bare, likely due to the circumstances of production and the fact that the setting and characters are so cinematically rich that they need no embellishment. The film makes expert use of its awesome settings as the lush forests and picturesque beaches offer an Edenic image of an uncorrupted corner of the world that risks eating itself from within.

Dean, acting as cinematographer as well as one of the directors, uses minimalist camerawork to capture the full scope and power of the settings. Vanuatu’s volcanoes figure prominently as Tanna offers some of the most spectacular sequences ever shot on film—and this claim is no pull-quote seeking hyperbole—as action unfurls near the edges of volcanoes. Tanna takes audiences into the heart of the inferno as passion bubbles by the precipice of these sights. One simply watches Tanna in awe as the bold fiery reds of the lava and the dark sooty blacks of the hardened remains offering stirring compositions that frame Wawa and Dain’s love as something rich and natural. Tanna uses every element of the natural landscape to its advantage, and the effort is absolutely thrilling. The powerful natural wonder of the film makes Tanna deliver a sharp environmental message on level as Dean and Butler’s film shows a world worth preserving.

World cinema fans must travel to the ends of the earth with this film as Tanna uses the bountiful beauty of its setting to offer more than just mere eye candy. The film is ultimately a rich sociological portrait and an intriguing step towards self-representation for a culture with a way of life that is becoming rare in the age of rapid globalisation. The camera feels like something more than an active observer as it runs in and out of the jungle, but it also watches from a respectful distance as the villagers gather for one final time and unite in a ceremonial dance.

In many ways, Tanna evokes a politically correct contemporary to Marcel Camus’s Palme d’Or and Oscar winning Black Orpheus with its richly beautiful tragedy and visually sumptuous palette that plays on the myth of Orpheus during Brazilian Carnivale. The film doesn’t romanticise the setting either, nor does the play on Romeo and Juliet reduce the villagers to myth. The romance situates the film within contemporary fights for women’s rights and asks how a traditional society balances the new ways with the old. The Shakespearean tragedy, finally, simply gives this tale of star-crossed lovers a wider reach. Tanna is a breathtaking sight to behold.