‘Tanna’ MOVIE REVIEW: A Glorious, Human Story of Forbidden Love

Image via Umbrella Entertainment

Tanna is a southern island of Vanuatu, where traditional cultures have survived the colonial expansion and the influence of modern culture is resisted. Its population is divided amongst tribal communities, all of which surround a giant active volcano.

This is the setting for Tanna, an Australia-Vanuatu co-production that tells the true story of two forbidden lovers who challenge their own traditions at the risk of enticing a tribal war. They are Wawa and Dain, teenagers whose love for one another defies their tribe’s law of arranged marriage. When Wawa is to be married into a neighbouring tribe, Dain sleeps with her in order to nullify the union. This outrages his elders and he is banished from the community forever, while Wawa refuses to comply and chases after him. Their exile puts the two tribes at war with the other village initiating a manhunt.

Based on a true account, the story bares a striking similarity to William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, which in turn reminds us that the human condition has no boundaries. While the characters in the film are deeply connected to their land and dress traditionally, their human bond is no different than any other culture’s. They laugh and love as anyone else does and it is this universal truth that solidifies Tanna, and makes it a tangible and wholly engaging movie-going experience.

Directors Martin Butler and Bentley Dean come from a documentary background and have previously made films that explore indigenous culture predating European settlement. And so crafting a feature-length film like Tanna was a logical evolution for them to take. They lived on the island for several months prior to shooting and immersed themselves in the culture. Much like Rolf De Heer’s seminal 2006 film Ten Canoes, they employ real people rather than actors, with every character on screen fictionalised versions of their real selves. The entire cast is incredible and they collectively anchor the film with an authenticity that professional actors could never achieve.

Image via Umbrella Entertainment

The cinematography is stunning, brilliantly capturing the landscapes and allowing the environment to be a crucial part of the story. From densely covered rainforests, to wide open plains, the lava-spouting volcano, the story is captured with a masterful combination of steady wide-shots, effortless tracking and concise hand-held techniques – all of which make Tanna a visceral feast for the eyes.

And what made the film resonate with me the most was its ability to touch upon topical issues without moralising or offering a social commentary. The ranging themes of colonisation, misogyny and religion are addressed simply and without judgement. The film presents all of these things as a matter of fact and puts them within their appropriate cultural context, thus maintaining its focus on the story at hand. What is achieved is a glorious, human story that should resonate wherever in the world it is seen.

The tragedy, of course, is that small foreign-language films such as this are rarely seen on the big screen, and the overall spectacle is lost when viewed on home-entertainment. Nevertheless, Tanna is well worth your time, and it might just resurface theatrically (with any luck) now that it has been officially nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Academy Awards… a very well deserved nomination at that.