Tanna was one of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Film. I’ve become more discriminating with this category. In previous years, I’d watch every foreign nominee, but the academy is fond of nominating Middle Eastern films purely on the basis of their country of origin. I have no problem with this…so long as the films don’t bore me to death. I’m not political, but the academy seems to be, especially lately when it comes to this category, and my completist efforts have me slogging through some really tedious film-making that was celebrated simply because it came from, say, Iran. So I take the foreign category with a grain of salt.
This one piqued my interest, however, in that it is set on a remote Pacific island (the Tanna of the title) and features real people of the Yakel tribe, re-enacting a true story of forbidden love that took place about 30 years ago. The Yakel featured in the film are not trained actors, and many of them have probably never even been filmed or had much contact with the outside world. I was very curious to see how directors Martin Butler and Bentley Dean could coax a compelling narrative and performances out of these people. The very fact they succeeded in telling this story is a marvel in itself.
The film focuses on a young woman named Wawa (Marie Wawa). In an effort to make peace with the Yakel’s enemies, the Imedin, and put an end to a long-standing war between the two tribes, she is set to marry a man from that tribe. However, she is deeply in love with a man from her own tribe named Dain (Mungau Dain). With the help of her younger, loyal sister, Selin (Marceline Rofit), Wawa regularly sneaks off for romantic trysts with Dain and ultimately plots to run away with him, knowing that the Yakel would never permit them to be together. It’s a basic and timeless tragedy along the lines of Romeo and Juliet (although in reverse) set against the beautiful natural backdrop of Tanna’s rain forests and active volcano.
So is it good? I’m very glad I saw it. The plot is nothing new, but nevertheless you’re seeing something that’s never been done before–the little-known people of Tanna, not in a documentary, but actually performing a narrative story in front of cameras, with all of the staging, set-up, cutting, and editing that requires. I’ve read that there was a fair amount of ad-libbing and improvising as well, and the fact they could manage this naturally in front of a film crew is rather miraculous. Sometimes the editing is a bit obvious–you can tell when a shot was cut or another shot or angle was inserted to cover for a gaffe from one of the actors or to nudge the narrative in the direction the filmmakers wanted to go. In spite of that, the performances throughout feel authentic, except perhaps for Marie Wawa, who is a bit awkward and stilted at times, as if she’s leery of being on camera. Marceline Rofit, as young Selin, is a gifted little wonder, full of fire and mischief, and owns the forest like some magical little sprite. She’s amazing. A development late in the film brings her to tears, and it’s one of the best performances I’ve seen from a child actor in a long time.
If you get past the marvel of the film’s existence (which I never really did), you may become a little bored with Tanna. As I mentioned, the plot is familiar, and it moves slowly. But in the right setting, it’s a relaxing and immersive experience. Find a comfortable chair or spot on the sofa, pop some popcorn, set aside some time with your spouse or loved one. Turn the sound up so you can hear the natural ambience of the forest. I don’t recommend the film for kids. We were on the fence about this. It should be mentioned that the Yakel and Imedin don’t wear much clothing, but that’s not what decided us. We were prepared to discuss with our children that different cultures around the world have different standards of modesty when it comes to clothing, and I would argue that the people of Tanna are much more modest in their habits and traditions that many modern Western cultures. Additionally, the filmmakers are to be applauded for subtly choosing camera angles that don’t exploit the actors’ nudity. And there’s only the mildest suggestion of sexual content. The film is just a bit too slow and somber for young children, who will quickly lose interest within a half hour. But for teens and their parents, Tanna is an excellent folk story that will connect you with a culture from the other side of the planet and resonate some common truths in the human spirit.