Film Review: Tanna


“Life is sweet living below the volcano,” says Dain, one of the star-crossed lovers of the South Pacific island of Tanna which gives its name to the Oscar-nominated feature directed by documentary filmmakers Bentley Dean and Martin Butler. Here, islanders do seem at first to have a paradisiacal life. We see the tribe’s life through the eyes of the young girl Selin (Marceline Rofit). She’s a mischief-maker, a playful spirit. They play in large family groups, swim in the rivers, forage and sing songs together.

However, the apparent freedom is endangered constantly and there is violence and death close by. When Selin accompanies her grandfather the village Shaman (Albi Nangia) to the volcano to visit the deity Yahul, they are attacked by a rival tribe, the Imedin, who blame the rival village holy man for the failure of their crops. Selin fetches the men to come and rescue them and they find her grandfather on the verge of death. A tribal gathering seeks to broker the peace by the marriage of Selin’s elder sister Wawa (Marie Wawa) with the Imedin who attacked her grandfather. War seems to have been averted but Wawa has fallen in love with the chief’s grandson Dain (Mungau Dain) and the two run away into the forest.

Filmed on the island of Vanuatu and using the collaboration of the tribespeople – the screenplay is credited to the two directors, Peter Weir collaborator John Collee and the people of Yakel – Tanna tells a true story of a marriage dispute that broke out in the 1987 on the island. The pressure for the chief Charlie (Chief Charlie Kahla) is reconciling the freedom the people treasure with the upholding of the traditions, referred to as Kastom. Colonialists, Christians and money all represent threats to the local way of life as does the belligerency of their neighbours, who are painted as the unambiguous villains of the piece.

The elopement threatens to plunge the islanders into a bloody war and everyone tries to persuade the couple to break off for the good of the tribe. The Shaman even uses an old magazine article about Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip to show Selin the precedents for arranged marriages. But Dain and Wawa are in love and though they are torn, having to abandon their families and way of life, it’s impossible for them to give each other up. Dean doubles as cinematographer and his ability to unobtrusively capture moments of village life is matched for an eye for the natural beauty the tribe lives amidst. But it’s a beauty which never drowns the film. There’s also room for jokes and gossip, nastiness and fun.

The looming volcano is given its due and the stars shine through a crack in the cave, elevating Dian and Wawa’s plight to the level of the cosmos. Antony Partos delivers an emotionally fluent score, though sometimes it is the song of the people themselves that carries the story. In fact, it is their untrained performances which drive Tanna. There’s a magnetism while watching Dain – chosen because he was considered the most handsome man in the village – and Wawa as they look at each other which makes their plight all the more moving.

John Bleasdale | @drjonty