Aida Vucic | 17/02/2017

Best described as an Australian-Vanuatian film, Bentley Dean and Martin Butler’s Tanna, is professed by the filmmakers themselves as a film that is both theirs and the peoples of Yakel. Shot entirely in Vanuatu and cast using the members of the Yakel-tribe themselves, this film is testament to their culture as well as the natural beauty of the island itself.

The story is documentary-esque, despite the fact that the characters themselves are fictitious, because the controversial topic of arranged marriage was, and continues to be, heavily practiced within these communities and the events that transpire mirror those which took place in 1987. The film cleverly portrays the indigenous community of Tanna, ensuring it maintains the integrity of the Yakel people and their heritage, while also omitting various details, including the consumption of kava and the more western-ised presence.


Tanna’s success is largely due to both Dean and Butler having uprooted their lives to live amongst the tribal people of Yakel. Without yet a clear story in mind, the two lived among the tribal people, following their customs and rituals. During their time with the people of Yakel, they were told of the tale of these two star crossed lovers whose lives came to a tragic end, resulting in the acceptance of ‘Love Marriages’. The story mirrors that of Romeo and Juliet, but sets itself apart with its unique setting and visually striking imagery.

Wawa (Marie Wawa) and Dain (Mungau Dain) belong to the same tribe, and its clear the two have chemistry as they share suggestive looks from afar. Their tribe has been in battle with the neighboring tribe, the Imedin, which has resulted in bloodshed including the death of Dain’s parents as well as the attack on Wawa’s grandfather. In an effort to resolve the ongoing disputes, Chief Charlie, Dain’s grandfather, arranges for the tribes to unify and declare peace by arranging a marriage between Wawa and the neighbouring Chief Mikum’s son. The two young lovers, facing a life apart, opt instead to run away with one another and in doing so, cause chaos amongst the two tribes as well as a rift from their own tribes.


Unlike the tale of Romeo and Juliet, we don’t view these lovers as being immature and reckless but strongly believe that the emotions shared between them are genuine; their love and affliction for one another pure. We can attribute this success to Bentley and Martin’s subtle story telling approach, with little use of exposition, but with a more holistic and visual approach.  The tale is told spectacularly, using the backdrop of the roaring volcano that is Mount Yasur as not only the Spirit Mother who imparts wisdom, respect and knowledge to those who follow her but, in some respects, as a metaphor for the love shared between Wawa and Dain.  


Coupled with shots of the lush rainforest and pristine oceans and an outstanding score by Antony Partos, it is clear why Tanna has been nominated for the Oscar for foreign-language film. A wonderful first feature film for Bentley and Martin.