Tanna is one of those movies where it appears, though some strange magic, the filmmakers managed to transport a movie camera to a different time and place. Like The New World, Apolcaypto, or the recent Silence, it provides a window into a world previously unseen, completely enveloping the viewer in its environment. The illusion is so grand you cannot see the seams.
‘Tanna’ refers to the island of Tanna in the South Pacific. Directors Martin Butler and Bentley Dean introduce us to a tribal village, the Yakel, on this island. The Yakel have rejected Christianity, and seemingly every other colonial influence. They hunt, live in huts, wear various flora for clothing. There is a fascinating intimation that some tribal chiefs are influenced by the Prince Philip Movement, but this strand is sadly undeveloped. Otherwise the Yakel have evolved without disturbance. The lack of modernity suggests a purposefully hermetically sealed community.
With a movie like this, I don’t even need a narrative. I know I’m weird, but I’m content to luxuriate in sights and wonders I’ve never seen before. Watching these people sing songs, gather leaves for dressmaking, commune with an alarmingly active volcano… It bewitched me. Butler and Dean make us feel like welcome guests among the Yakel. After half an hour or so, I found myself hoping that they might pull a Malick and eschew plot—especially because the opening of Tanna heavily recalls The Thin Red Line’s opening sequence.
It’s not all cinematic tourism, however; there is a narrative in Tanna. And like Titanic, or Avatar, it’s a relatively simple one so as not to distract from the marvels in orbit. The focus is on young Wawa. On the cusp of adulthood, the women of the tribe help her prepare for her initiation ritual to become a capital-W Woman. They weave her a dress, paint her face, instruct her on being a good wife and mother. She’s been exchanging googly-eyes with warrior Dain, though their relationship isn’t common knowledge. Only Wawa’s younger sister Selin has noticed the flirtations.
The tribe doesn’t exactly live in the Malickian paradise I suggested. They occasionally feud with a nearby tribe, the Imedin; there’s a kind of Neutral Zone in between the homesteads where one walks at great peril. In retaliation for a past injustice, one of the Imedin kills the shaman of Wawa’s tribe as Selin watches.
In a last-ditch effort to broker a ceasefire between the Imedin and Yakel, a local peacekeeping chief insists that each tribe shall offer up one woman to the other for marriage. Unfortunately for Wawa, her chief selects her to wed an Imedin man. This displeases her most strongly, and sends Dain into a veritable tizzy. The lovers up and run away in the night; a move that threatens to send the tribes back to war.
Though based on true events, the narrative is, for me, the weakest link in Tanna’s otherwise sturdy chain. A Tale of Star-Crossed Lovers on the Run is pretty standard stuff by now, and Butler and Dean don’t do much different with the narrative—other than transplant it to a foreign world, of course. This gives the final third of the film an air of inevitability that muffled its emotional impact.
But just because its story holds Tanna from greatness does not mean the film isn’t worth your time. The Yakel are unforgettable characters, and their songs and customs will linger in your mind for long after. Tanna is Australia’s entry for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar; I agree wholeheartedly with its nomination. The virtues here far outweigh the debits. Seek it out.