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On an island in the South Pacific lives a people who clothe themselves with grass garments. They know no modern amenities and obey traditional tribal law. The island is Tanna, and co-directors Martin Butler and Bentley Dean lived among its tribes for months to develop their first fictional feature. At first, they just interacted with the villagers, learning what their daily lives and customs were like. But soon they were told of an event that occurred in 1987, one that became pivotal in changing a facet of the tribes’ culture.
Butler and Dean couldn’t have been luckier: It was a romance, and a doomed one at that. Filmic gold.
Tanna, if its lore is to be believed, is something of a marvel. The villagers, specifically belonging to the Yakel tribe, had never seen movies or cameras when the directors settled in. Yet they took to acting and filmmaking enthusiastically, with each character here played by a nonprofessional along with the village itself, its landmarks (particularly an active volcano) providing a dramatic and most authentic set. It’s very Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Though Tanna begins with its focus on Selin, an energetic and slightly troublemaking young girl, it eventually switches to Selin’s older sister, Wawa (Marie Wawa). Wawa’s relatives are getting ready for her “initiation” into womanhood, which means she’ll be eligible for an arranged marriage. But Wawa already has a secret boyfriend: Dain (Mungau Dain), grandson of the tribe’s chief. When Selin catches them, Wawa warns her not to tell anybody. “You want me to lie for you?” she asks. Instead of hesitating, the girl’s eyes light up.
Selin likes to run up into “the taboo place,” or the area of the island belonging to the Imedin tribe, who are Yakel enemies. Her fed-up father sends her on a trip to their “spirit mother”—the volcano—with the tribe’s shaman to learn respect. But the Imedin attack the shaman, leading to a meeting of the tribes in an attempt to broker peace. Dain wants to seek revenge; he’d watched the Imedin kill his parents when he was younger. But the nurturing Wawa tries to convince him that more violence is not the answer. “We can’t keep doing terrible things to each other,” she says.
Well, that’s before her chief offers her to the Imedin as a bride in a good-faith gesture of their new treaty. Both Dain and Wawa—who boldly claims that she can’t be someone else’s bride because she and Dain had sex—get grief from the tribe. “If you don’t go [to the Imedin],” a relative tells Wawa, “there will be war.”
At this point, Tanna dials up the romance but significantly slows down the action. The star-crossed pair run away, trying to find another community that will accept them. (A Christian group is quickly crossed off the list: “These people freak me out,” Dain says.) Their mutual devotion is sweet, but watching them hug and make eyes at each other gets a little old. To escape their families, they travel to the volcano, which Butler and Dean use to maximum effect throughout the film. The shaman is beaten: geysers of molten lava spew behind the shadowed figures. You could say that the volcano cues emotional responses in this film the way that music does in others—but there’s melodramatic music, too.
Besides the lush backdrops (and yes, the fiery eruptions are also spectacular, just overused) Tanna’s most impressive aspect is its performances. The lovers, the families, the tribes—all behave naturally and never give the sense of “acting.” And though its tragic end is predictable, the film’s close is bittersweet, with the chiefs agreeing to now recognize “love marriage.” That this developed merely three decades ago is amazing, just as astonishing as the fact that this film was made at all.
Tanna opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.