Lightyear Entertainment dist. by eOne
Lightyear Entertainment dist. by eOne

As it gets ready to make its USA theatrical premiere this Friday, September 16, “Tanna” – a story about star-crossed lovers in the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, co-directed by Australian filmmakers Bentley Dean and Martin Butler (their narrative feature debut) – has been selected by Australia as the country’s official entry for the 2017 Foreign Language Film Oscar race.

The film beautifully depicts the true story of how two of the last remaining indigenous tribes in the Republic incorporate love into their ancient tradition of arranged marriage.

“Tanna,” the first feature film shot entirely in Vanuatu, premiered at the Venice Film Festival last fall, where it won the Audience Award in the International Critics Week sidebar as well as the Best Cinematography prize.

The synopsis reads: “‘Tanna’ is set in the South Pacific where Wawa, a young girl from one of the last traditional tribes, falls in love with her chief’s grandson, Dain. When an inter-tribal war escalates, Wawa is unknowingly betrothed as part of a peace deal. The young lovers run away, but are pursued by enemy warriors intent on killing them. They must choose between their hearts and the future of the tribe.”

Although the Romeo and Juliet-esque story has been done before, what distinguishes Tanna is the setting—in Yakel village, near a live volcano—the cinematography—lush, picturesque forests and shooting lava—and the characters—a cast of non-actors, from Yakel, some of whom play the same roles in the film as they do in life.

The documentary style of filming also serves to capture and preserve Yakel culture, called Kastom, on film, with breathtaking imagery. All this the filmmakers achieved with a two-person crew—Dean on camera and Butler on sound.

Given the nation’s strategic role in WWII, as the largest U.S. army supply base in the South Pacific, the rejection of Western values and lifestyles is a decidedly political choice. (At the end of the war, American troops bulldozed hospitals and supply centers over cliffs rather than leave them behind for the Vanuatans.)

Vanuatu was the only country in the region to support independence and political freedom for East Timor, even when faced with threats of cessation of foreign aid. Its support of other movements, such as Namibian independence and South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle, has largely been ascribed to a strong indigenous culture.

The film was acquired by Lightyear Entertainment, who will open it in the USA at Lincoln Plaza in New York this Friday, September 16th, followed by Los Angeles and other markets a week later.

A trailer for the film follows below: