The tragic romance of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet about forbidden love between two people from opposite sides of sworn enemies is as old as fiction itself, having seen numerous stage, literary and theatrical adaptations over the years including but not limited to directors Robert Wise, Franco Zeffirelli, Baz Luhrmann, John Madden and even the Disney company. But few have ever seen it look, sound or feel anything remotely like Martin Butler and Bentley Dean’s anthropological documentary turned evocative narrative feature Tanna. After having spent nearly two years in the Kastom villages in Vanuatu on the island of Tanna living with the indigenous ni-Vanuatu tribe to make a documentary on the John Frum movement, the film was then revised as a feature loosely based on the 1987 suicides of two natives in love who rejected the Kastom tradition of arranged marriage all the while highlighting a way of life in all of its splendor and beauty unseen by human eyes for centuries. Developed in part with the Yakel people and boiled down to only a two person crew consisting of Dean as the cinematographer and Butler as the co-director, Tanna is among the most painterly, ethereal and achingly beautiful romantic dramas ever created while giving viewers a timeless snapshot of an entire populous untouched by civilization or technological advancement. Think of Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner in terms of how it digs deep into the authentic heart of indigenous tribal life while still managing to tell a universally relatable narrative with sensitivity, heart and images you’re unlikely to have seen before or will see ever again.
One of the most gorgeous films of the year with almost impossibly glorious vistas of the jungle, a recurring image of a thundering volcano belching lava into the sky and intimate yet radiant close ups of the Vanuatu couple in love, Tanna is a film that will take the breaths away of even the most cynical and hard-nosed cinephiles who think they’ve seen all of the awe and wonderment cinema as to offer. The soundtrack by Antony Partos with vocals by Dead Can Dance’s very own Lisa Gerrard itself echoes the films of Terrence Malick and Ron Fricke with haunting ethereal arias that reverberate across the cavernous mountain peaks. Told entirely from within the indigenous tribe with all of the customs, forms of political discourse, hunting methods and social dynamics intact, we’re drawn deep into a society which has never seen a film and found the Venice Film Festival premiere in and of itself otherworldly upon the film’s world premiere. One of the reasons Tanna is astonishing to watch is how many compelling performances are drawn out of the very real Yakel people without prior acting experience. While there are sequences that are of course dramatized to fulfill the storyline, much of Tanna quietly observes the Vanuatu way of life without Western influences or the faux documentary “realism” of Nanook of the North. That Butler and Dean were able to elicit performances from the two leads (Marie Wawa and Mungau Dain playing themselves) while maintaining a careful distance from the people so as to not interfere with their daily routine is nothing short of astonishing. It’s one thing to coax a performance out of a trained actor or a less than talented performer, but it’s quite another to do the same with a primitive society unfamiliar with film or theater all the while drawing out transcendent performances no trained actor could have done justice. The film also moves at a brisk pace with sharp editing and juxtaposition, creating a snapshot of a timeless way of life through the prism of Western narrative structure. Unlike the aforementioned The Fast Runner which takes its sweet old time for three hours, Tanna gives you everything and more under the two hour running time.
Romeo and Juliet might be among the most overplayed stories in the literary medium with countless incarnations and more to come in the future, yes, but it’s hard to imagine a take on the material looking, sounding or feeling anything remotely like Tanna before or ever again. It is a once in a lifetime film experience of boundless beauty, awe and wonderment while telling a very down to Earth story that is at once neorealist in approach, documentarian in focus and location and ultimately simple in its purity as a portrait of a way of life bound to nature and spirituality. A docudrama in the truest sense of the word, creating a captivating piece of storytelling out of real worldly events, people and locations, Tanna is as familiar to seasoned cinephiles as it is alien, giving viewers a look at the world as they’ve never seen it lived in before. Like a graceful wave on the beach during a bright and cloudless sunny day, it washes over you and leaves you feeling as cleansed and enlightened as you are elated. Only the first feature from a pair of filmmakers previously steeped in documentary work, Tanna presents to the world an entire culture forgotten by the world while proving you don’t need more than a two person crew armed with Canon Digital HD camera to produce some of the most astonishing images the silver screen has seen this year!
- Andrew Kotwicki