The 23rd New York African Film Festival’s opening night film, “Tanna” is a story about star-crossed lovers in the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. Co-directed by documentarians Bentley Dean and Martin Butler—who had never made a narrative feature before— the film beautifully depicts the true story of how two of the last remaining indigenous tribes incorporate love into their ancient tradition of arranged marriage.
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 achieve with a two-person crew—Dean on camera and Butler on sound.
The Q&A after the film’s New York African Film Festival screening was perhaps even more interesting than the film itself. Co-director Bentley Dean was joined by distributor Arnie Holland, Ambassador to the Permanent Mission of Vanuatu to the UN Odo Tevi, former US Ambassador to Vanuatu Robert Van Lierop, and moderator Malika Lee Whitney.
“Tanna” is the first feature film shot entirely in Vanuatu. Dean—who first lived there as a foreign correspondent, and moved back with his family to make the film—spoke about the collaborative process between the community and the filmmakers. He stressed that the Tannese, while knowledgeable about the world, believe they have a unique—and, according to them, superior—culture to offer the world.
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, and will be released in New York and Los Angeles in September 2016.
Lightyear has premiered a new trailer for the film: