Tanna: a remarkable film

My reflection on Tanna, which we saw last night. The blog describes the plot, so don’t read it if you want to see the film–and I strongly recommend that you do.

Tanna, which has been nominated for an Oscar as best foreign-language film, is remarkable not only in its beauty, poignancy, and engagement but also in that it could be made at all.


The film is set in Tanna, an island in Vanuatu, and all of the “actors” are the local tribal people, the Yakel, who are essentially hunter-gatherers with small gardens where they grow crops. The men wear garlands of leaves around their heads, necklaces, penis sheaths and little else, and the women have generous grass skirts that make them look like ostriches as they run; and everybody runs, few walk.

As is made clear in an article on the BBC website, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-38740908 the local people have chosen to continue their traditional way of life: it’s not that they are “cut off.” In the film they talk proudly of seeing off “colonials” and “developers,” and one of the scenes shows tribal people who have converted to Christianity: they look silly in their clothes and behave in a ridiculous way.

One of the Australian film-makers, Bentley Dean, and his wife and two children lived seven months with the Yakel before the film was made. They returned to make a film, a drama, without any clear idea of what it would be about–and together with the Yakel, none of whom had ever seen a film, they decided on a true story that happened in the 80s. The inspiration was a song that told the story of how two young people had fallen in love and so refused to go along with the traditional system of arranged marriages between tribes. (You could see in the film how this tradition made sense because each tribe seemed to comprise about 150 people, the standard for hunter-gatherers, and marrying into other tribes would both reduce genetic abnormalities and reduce war by binding tribes together.) The elders tried to force the young people to go along with the traditional system, but instead they killed themselves. Other couples, the BBC reports, did the same–and subsequently the tribes have accepted love marriages, which now account for half of marriages.

My friend, John Collee, helped write the screenplay, which must have been a challenging experience. As an experienced screenwriter with a talent for storytelling, he must have had to negotiate among the local people and the film makers to arrive at a story that would satisfy everybody, including an international audience–for this is a drama not a documentary. The actors speak in Nauvhal, their local language, and presumably few if any knew English; there are English subtitles. The two main actors, Dain (the man) and Wawa, are both strikingly beautiful–and were chosen by the local people for their looks. Both were utterly convincing: I didn’t ever think of them as acting.


The film begins with lots of children playing, running, dancing, chasing, leaping into streams, and cavorting under waterfalls. It has the initial feel of the Garden of Eden, but we soon learn that Dain’s parents were murdered by the Imeldin, a rival tribe. Dain wants revenge, but his grandfather, the chief, wants peace and warns him against seeking revenge. We see Dain and Wawa together, and their looks and the music (just a touch cheesy) tell us they are falling in love.

Early on we encounter Selin, Wawa’s younger sister, who is a bold, adventurous, barely controlled girl. Her grandfather, the village shaman, takes her to the top of Yasur, the island’s volcano, which is presumably regarded as a god. It is hoped that exposure to the power and majesty of the volcano will calm her. The volcano plays a major part in the film, providing exquisite shots and symbolising the antiquity of the tribe, the primacy of nature, and the intensity of both love and death. On the volcano the Imeldin attack and kill Selin’s grandfather. She runs through the night to alert her tribe. The men return for the grandfather and carry him home–but he dies.


The chief wants to avoid more killing–as does the head chief on Tanna. So the tribes gather, and as a peace offering the chief offers Wawa as a bride. Neither she nor Dain want this, but in a discordant scene Wawa’s father tries to convince her that an arranged marriage is fine by showing pictures from a magazine (perhaps the Illustrated London News) of Prince Phillip and Queen Elizabeth, saying that they had an arranged marriage that worked out well. (I don’t think that it was an arranged marriage.) Most surprisingly, the father shows a picture of himself and fellow tribesmen in Western suits with Prince Phillip. (All this made more sense to me afterwards when I learnt that Vanuatu has a “Prince Phillip Cult.”)

Wawa was not impressed, and she and Dain meet, he puts his arm round her, and they head behind a rock for an off-screen consummation of their love. This means that Wawa is “spoiled,” so the chief condemns Dain, who refuses to relent and is expelled from the tribe. He heads for the volcano, gathering poisonous mushrooms as he goes. Later that night Wawa sneaks out of her hut and joins him.

The chief apologises to the Imeldin for the loss of Wawa but promises to find her and bring her to them. The Imeldin chief is not impressed and declares that they will find the couple, kill Dain, and bring home Wawa. Dain’s grandfather wants to avoid the killing, so his men try to find the couple first. Meanwhile, Dain and Wawa enjoy a short but idyllic time, swimming together in the sea, declaring they will have 50 children, and living in the forest.

The Yuval find the couple before the Imeldin, and they want them to return. The couple decide they would rather die, climb to the top of the volcano, and eat the poisonous mushrooms.

The bodies are carried back the village and buried. The shocked tribes gather again, and the chief of the Imeldin says that the spirit has sent him a song. He sings the song that inspired the film, and the chiefs declare that they will agree to some love marriages. The film ends with a magnificent dance of all the people of the tribes, male and female, young and old. “Always end with a song,” I heard my comedian brother say (and preferably a dance too, he might have add).


During the making of the film, the BBC reports, the film makers tried to involve a rival tribe–to give a reality to the tribal conflict; but this almost started a war, which was avoided only by gifts of pigs and kava (no brides.)

It was a wonderful film that was enhanced by the arresting scenery–that was so unusual it looked almost as if it was created specially. The Prince Phillip bit perplexed me, and I found myself wondering too about how the concept of love entered the tribe. I have the idea that romantic love is a Western notion invented around the time of the Crusades. Sexual attraction has always existed, but was the idea that two of the Yuval might “fall in love” and refuse to go along with traditional arranged marriages an input from the outside world?

I think of a conversation I had with a Bangladeshi friend, who had himself had an arranged marriage and had two daughters doing PhDs in the US. I asked if he was concerned that his daughters might fall in love in the US. He regarded that as impossible: they would not fall in love and would return from the US for arranged marriages (not getting married was equally unthinkable).

But this is quibbling. If you get a chance to see Tanna, seize it.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s