I’m generally a bit of an Oscars Schmoscars kind of guy. But even I can’t help being a little interested when Australia has a nominee for Best Foreign Language film. It certainly doesn’t hurt when Tanna (2015), the film in question, is a wonderfully tender and unique love story.
The film is a somewhat traditional tale of forbidden love, but imbued with some really interesting texture from the society that it takes place in. Directors Martin Butler and Bentley Dean are able to ground and immerse the viewer in a naturalism, through the approach taken to the shooting. The story is based on an actual event from the tiny island of Tanna (where the film was shot), and all dialogue is in the local Nauvhal language. All the performances in the film are from the Yakel people, who were clearly involved in almost all facets of the film. The result is cultural immersion, but not in a bland, anthropological sense. There’s a real spark to the people and their interactions that shines through. This is a world of taboo, forbidden places and arranged marriage, and there is a feeling that all of the characters are genuinely impacted upon by these. But there is also plenty of lightness in the film, humour and playfulness abound. Pretty sure this is the first film I’ve seen that featured the line “get her! She stole my penis sheath”. Don’t go in expecting this to be all serious all the time. The film looks great, colour popping off the screen, which is a remarkable effort given the lack of formal filmmaking infrastructure in Vanuatu. It’s a pretty impressive feat to pull off from two debut feature filmmakers.
The plot itself is one of a couple choosing to chase their love against the backdrop of societal pressure for arranged marriage. You’ve seen/read it before no doubt, but not like this, not performed by these people and in this culture. The use of non-professional actors does not always succeed, but it does beautifully here. Especially from the two romantic leads Marie Wawa and Mungau Dain. Whilst most of the other cast members are essentially playing versions of themselves going about their daily lives, these two are able to convey an incredible amount of longing, intrigue, nervousness, deep joy and desire. This is often wordlessly achieved through stolen glances and simple physicality. It is so well realised that it is remarkable they are not trained actors. There is something really uncontrived about their love scenes together too. They are totally sweet, genuine and, for lack of a better word, loving. The film builds up the tenderness between the two of them very efficiently. From this central romance, the film circles out a lot, which gives you a really excellent sense of culture. Particular in terms of Kastom, the role that tribal law plays in everyday lives and how it impacts on our lovers. Perhaps more than anything else it is these tribal law elements that provide the extra layer of texture to this traditional plot.
Verdict: This film will immerse you and transport you wholly into the Yakel culture. From that starting point, there is a quite beautiful, poignant and classic love story being told here that is delightful and moving to go along with. Pint of Kilkenny