Barefoot on the red carpet

‘Tanna’ is a gem of a movie, and its stars deserve to shine among the brightest lights of the glitterati

There are two ways to make a movie like ‘Tanna’:

You could spend millions housing and caring for a cast and crew of hundreds, millions more on costumes, sets, make-up and outlandish logistical costs, and even more on lavish, painstakingly built CGI effects.

Or you could take a couple of hand-held cameras and go live in Yakel village for six months.

Both approaches would probably work, more or less. The first will get you The Mission, or Mosquito Coast, or—heaven help you—Fitzcarraldo. But only the latter is capable of capturing the heart of kastom in Tanna.

‘Tanna’ is visually lush and—happily—not polished. The actors have bad hair days, they have calloused hands and dirt under their nails. And this matters, because ‘Tanna’ is not just another hackneyed love story transposed into an exotic locale. It is composed of the essence of life in traditional Vanuatu.

The film is based on historical events. Poised precariously toward the south end of the spine of hills running down the centre of the island of Tanna, Yakel village is also poised on the cusp between tradition and change. The world outside this enclave looms like a shadow over every shot, although it scarcely encroaches into the story.

But Yakel is not a museum exhibit; it’s not frozen in jade. Life is not the pastoral idyll full of noble savages that Jimmy Rodgers and his ilk would so love us to see. There is nobility, to be sure, and savagery, too. Yakel is a microcosm, but it’s beset by geopolitics just as dire as faced by any nation state.

Dain (played by Mungau Dain) is a young man, grandson of a chief, whose parents were both murdered by the Imedin, a rival clan who claim contested territory on their mutual border. His laconic, smouldering countenance raises the temperature in the room every time he’s onscreen. He is the very epitome of the angry young man.

Small wonder then that Wawa (Marie Wawa), a stunning natural beauty who’s only barely come of age, falls hopelessly in love with young Dain. She cleaves to him in full knowledge that she is to be sent to marry the man who brutally clubbed the village klever—or shaman. She will be used as a chattel, nothing more; a means of securing peace between her tribe and the warlike Imedin.

From all sides, the pressure mounts on the star-crossed couple. Only tiny Selin (Marceline Rofit), Wawa’s younger sister, keeps faith with the two.

It is through Selin’s eyes that we see most of the pageantry and drama unfold. The ingenuous feel of the movie, filmed entirely on a couple of hand-held cameras and using only the tiniest hint of artificial light, is given the perfect vehicle in this charming young girl.

Selin plays a central—and heroic—role in the film, and her wonder and innocence are a perfect filter for the viewer.

Anyone who hasn’t visited the island of Tanna will find themselves spellbound by the beauty and diversity of its settings and moods. The spirit mother Yahul presides over everything, and it doesn’t take long to begin to feel her immanence.

The movie is not flawless. As much as the hesitance, naïveté and Spartan simplicity of the actors’ performances give an air of utter naturalism to the film, the result is a rhythm may take some getting used to for those not immersed in Vanuatu culture. Like all great poetry, it risks getting lost in translation.

But that is our sin, not theirs.

The soundtrack is the only part of the film that feels tacked on. Actual music appears so rarely it ends up being neither fish nor fowl. For the overwhelming majority of the time, we’re regaled with the mundane chorus of chickens, dogs and children—the music of village life, if you will. And key moments are acted out near Yasur, an immense, brooding volcano, and its pyroclasms and subterranean rumblings are a quite-literally-awesome accompaniment to the plot’s tectonic forces.

In the face of all this, the choice of the voluptuously produced, operatic voice of Lisa Gerrard to punch over the top ends up feeling slightly contrived. It distracts when it should help focus key moments. The music itself is gorgeous, but it’s not of a piece with the rest of the film.

That’s hardly a damning indictment, of course. ‘Tanna’ really is a cinematic pearl of great price, made almost miraculous when one considers whence it came. And this writer confesses to shedding more than a single tear at seeing that beautiful island as it was before it was devastated by cyclone and drought.

‘Tanna’ is the testament of a living people, a story of earth-moving change, a story from living history. At its heart it is more sincere, more direct, and more affecting than most moderns are even capable of conceiving.

The movie ‘Tanna’ is in theatres now. Don’t miss it.