Tanna ★★★½

I’ll admit to being a little uncomfortable sitting, fully blanketed, in an air conditioned cinema watching the shivering, grass-skirted cast of Tanna doing the promotional dance for their film. As they answer the trickle of condescending white people questions through their exuberant translator, the ethnographic consumption of their first feature hit home.

Thankfully, none of this discomfort presents in the film itself. Extensive collaboration with the Yakel tribe, one of Tanna’s traditionally-living Kastom communities, by directors Martin Butler and Bentley Dean, has resulted in a vivid melding of cultural rigour and storytelling naturalism. The bare bones of the narrative are drawn from the island’s recent history, with first time actors drawing on their actual lives to recreate the story of a taboo love match in the 1980s that brought a new strength to the Kastom tribes, though at a tragic cost.

In cutting to the marrow of such a universal narrative trope, the creative team behind Tanna breathe a rare life into it. Marie Wawa and Mungau Dain, who take on the mantle of the impetuous lovers, share an easy chemistry, which stands up well to the buffeting of social pressure from within their tribe and the threat of physical violence from without. Their love sets up a tradition vs. progression dynamic, which the cast and crew unpack, plainly but with involving earnestness.

Selin, Wawa’s younger sister, who bounds across the island as a mischievous second lead, also makes an engaging access point, compounding the film’s weighty innocence. Her snappy charisma and the film’s narrative simplicity should give audiences a satisfying enough viewpoint from which to drink in Tanna’s many-faceted beauty. Dean’s digital cinematography also does well to showcase the island’s abundant charms, getting up close and personal with all his actors and with the island’s frighteningly active volcano. Both are used to impressive effect.

Though it may present as a fairly traditional culture fable, the accomplishment of the final product and the seamless manner in which everyone involved has been able to translate the island experience to the big screen sets Tanna apart. For a community that hadn’t seen a movie before starting down the film making path, they’ve ended up with an exceptional and culturally significant record of their own current and recent history. A rare film that explores their lives without patronising them.

Now we just have to find a way to consume it without doing so.

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