Imagine Romeo and Juliet set among the Yakel tribes of the island of Tanna in the small nation of Vanuatu. The tribe people speak a rare dialect called Nivhaal, and, except for the grass-skirts that the women wear and the penis-sheaths for the men, they are naked. What is most extraordinary about Tanna is that Australian directors, Martin Butler and Bentley Dean have based their Romeo and Juliet on real events that happened to that tribe 30 years ago. Some of the non-actors in the film are playing their own role. You understand that it is about two doomed lovers. Teenagers Wawa (Marie Wawa) and Dain (Mungau Dain) are in love. The handsome Dain is the grandson of the Yakel chief, and returning to the village after an absence, he reconnects with his childhood crush Wawa. The whole thing is observed by Wawa’s little sister Selin (Marceline Rofit). Selin is a bit of a pest, asking Wawa what is happening (even though she knows that her sister is in love with Dain), following her sister, spying on her. Selin is also able to run barefoot through the jungle faster than most people. Marceline Rofit’s fierce running is reminiscent of Quvenzhané Wallis in Beast of the southern wild. When the sister’s grandfather is attacked by members of a rival tribe, Selin runs to the village to tell them what she saw. After the grandfather dies, a meeting between the two tribes is set to arrange a peaceful truce. To make peace a marriage is arranged between Wawa and the son of the chief the rival tribe. The two lovers escape from the village to avoid being separated. This angers the rival tribe and puts their tribe in danger. Mixing documentary and fiction film techniques is nothing new. The films of Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the north in 1922 or Man of Aran in 1934) are good example. But this was a long time ago. The genre has been dead for quite some time. The cast is entirely made of non-professional tribe people, and they are filmed in their natural habitat, doing the things they probably do every days. It is their rituals, their dances and their chants. There is a minimum of artificiality, if any. It is real. That is maybe why there is not a bad actor among them. They are not acting. And the people are charming. Marie Wawa and Mungau Dain make a lovely couple. But as Salin Marceline Rofit steals the movie. That only would be enough to see the film. The breathtaking landscapes, magnificently photographed by director Bentley Dean, who does double duty as cinematographer, is another reason. Tanna is a beautiful, charming and compelling film. A pure joy.
And the Oscar went to… The Australian entry for Best foreign language film, Tanna made the final list of five films to compete on Oscar night. It is strong enough to have won. But Iran’s The salesman was the winner.
Plays at Ottawa’s ByTowne Cinema from June 16 – 25
Rated Parental Guidance
In Nivhaal with English subtitles.