In 2013, fresh from finishing First Footprints, a documentary series about Australia’s Aboriginal history, Bentley Dean told co-director Martin Butler of his plan to live with his partner and young family in a “very different culture” before the kids started school. They wound up in Vanuatu, on the tiny remote island of Tanna, where they stayed for seven months. Butler was a regular visitor during this time. One day, he and Dean were talking about a possible film project with the most traditional of the Tanna peoples, the Yakel tribe, who cleave strongly to the old ways of Kastom (custom), still hunt with bow and arrow, and make their clothes and houses entirely from materials gathered in the jungle. Dean and Butler discussed a story they had heard about two lovers in the community, and the Yakel men sang a haunting song about that subject:
Since the beginning of time / the chiefs have arranged marriage / along the Kastom roads. / But two lovers chose to walk a different path. / Now hear their word: “You saw our love was strong / You saw how we felt / You denied us this life together / We had no choice but to say goodbye.”
The song spoke of actual events from only 30 years ago; Dean and Butler wondered if they could make a film using the song as a starting point. (They were used to being a lean two-person crew.) The Yakel had never seen a feature film before, so the filmmakers showed them Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr’s Ten Canoes (2006) on their laptop. The Yakel got the idea, and wanted to start shooting immediately.
Everyone agreed that the lead character should be played by Yakel tribesman Mungau Dain, for he was the most handsome. Other tribe members play versions of themselves: the medicine man (Albi Nangia) plays the medicine man, while the Yakel chief, Charlie Kahla, plays Chief Charlie, who loves giving speeches. (“The colonial powers – we resisted. The Christians – we resisted. The lure of money – we resisted that also. We are the last keepers of Kastom, and we are few.”) On the other hand, the Yakel couldn’t use their actual nearby enemies as the enemies, because fighting broke out when the topic was raised. The project was put in jeopardy, but the situation was resolved at a meeting where pigs and kava were offered. Less-combative neighbours were eventually enlisted.
Dean, Butler and the Yakel people mapped out and workshopped the story. At the start of shooting each scene, everyone present would be asked what would happen in real life. Essential beats and lines were filmed, but there was always room for spontaneous performances and speeches.
The resulting movie is charming and fascinating: a star-crossed-lovers tale stripped of much of the psychological complexity generally embedded in contemporary film. Like Ten Canoes, Tanna (in limited release 5 November) carries an air of elemental fable. Jonathan auf der Heide’s Van Diemen’s Land (2009) and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising (2009) were pared back like Tanna and Ten Canoes. They, too, hearken back to something primal, but for all their minimalism are very Western stories of men – white men, in menacingly primitive environments – enmeshed in complex dances of brutal, horrifying violence. Tanna de-fangs the “primitive”: here the jungle is simply the real world, the only world, where at times the characters who inhabit it, arguing their points of view at tribal meetings, might well be participating in parliamentary debates. Less, then, a conflict narrative than a tale of conflict resolution (albeit with a sting).
A young woman, Wawa (Marie Wawa), falls in love with Dain, and he with her. The lovelorn warrior hangs around in opportune spots – it’s funny, seeing “fancy meeting you here” moments on remote jungle paths – and rather self-consciously strikes poses for Wawa to notice. “You catch a lot of butterflies like that?” she teases him.
Much of the early stages of the film, and of the growth of the secret romance, are seen through the eyes of Wawa’s mischievous little sister, Selin (Marceline Rofit). Selin is told not to go into certain areas – “warriors are everywhere” – but her desire to be witness is stronger than the desire to be obedient. Besides, any excuse will do for Selin to shirk as much work as possible. “Catch her, she stole my penis sheath!” cries a tiny boy as Selin scampers away, delighted.
Wawa undergoes a raucous female initiation ceremony. We don’t learn exactly how old she is, but the purpose of the ceremony is to make her a woman, ready for marriage. The elders are arranging Wawa’s betrothal to someone from another tribe, the Imedin, in what is essentially a peace-brokering deal. As far as Wawa is concerned, nothing is going to get in the way of love. “I want to choose whom I marry,” she complains.
“This is not about you, it’s about all of us,” counters her mother. “If you follow your heart,” her grandmother chimes in, “the Imedin will take revenge.” Later, the medicine man (Wawa and Selin’s grandfather) lays it out even more clearly: “If you don’t go to the Imedin there will be war. No one will be safe.”
In slightly clichéd ways – there are a couple of “bad guy staring from behind the bush” moments – we meet the Imedin. As luck would have it, the baddest bad guy of them all, Kapan Cook (that is the actor’s name, too; his namesake visited Tanna in 1774) turns out to be the one to whom Wawa has been promised. Kapan Cook believes it is the medicine man who made the Imedin crops fail. Collisions are looming. When the medicine man takes little Selin to the nearby volcano (“It’s time you learned the meaning of respect”), Kapan Cook and his henchmen aren’t far behind.
When the conflict comes, memories of bloodshed from the not-distant past are dredged up. For a while, the film’s love versus ritual theme is overtaken by that of revenge versus forgiveness. In such delicately interwoven human ecosystems, constant warfare drains everyone’s resources; here, the elders lean towards making up and moving on. “I want revenge,” says Dain, a dissenting voice. “The Imedin slit my father’s throat. My grandfather is telling me to forget that. I can’t help thinking about what I saw.”
Down in a far valley, where we see a church and islanders in Western clothes, another kind of redemption is on offer. But to Chief Charlie, the Christians have left the old ways and “become lost”. The Christians, when we meet them briefly, are broadly drawn and come across as Shakespearean comic relief. “You were led by sin to live in the wild,” one of them tells Wawa and Dain. “We will clothe you. Our leader will show you the light.”
“These people freak me out,” mutters Dain to Wawa, deadpan.
The film makes no distinction between “forced” and “arranged” marriage, and it’s unclear whether the Yakel or other tribespeople make one either – Wawa’s marriage into the Imedin tribe is referred to as an arranged one, when it would appear to be forced. (A forced marriage is always also an arranged marriage, but an arranged one is not necessarily forced. Given the familial and societal pressures at play in cultures where the practice is common, the lines can be very problematically blurred.)
Certainly, the characters in Tanna use the less harsh of the two terms – at one point, with a sly nod towards the practice in a more distant outpost of empire. “You know Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip?” asks Wawa’s grandfather, showing her an old black-and-white photo of himself wearing a suit, in audience with the Queen. “Their marriage was arranged too.” Wawa studies the photo, as if looking for evidence that some good can come of these situations. “Remember I went to their house and met Philip?” continues her grandfather. “I saw with my own eyes that he loved her.”
Yet Tanna attempts to show a tribe struggling with whether the rules and rituals of Kastom should contain the possibility of adapting to changing circumstances. The age-old issue of the white, Western interpreter appropriating the “other” – through everything from colonialism to art – and of viewing it through their own cultural lens is somewhat assuaged here. Dean and Butler have the technology and know-how to make the film’s existence possible. But there’s a very specific story the Yakel wanted to tell: about grappling between past and future.
When the film was completed, the very first screening – on a white sheet strung between banyan trees – was for the villagers. “We know you came here with your equipment and idea to make a film,” the elders told the directors afterwards, “but we want to inform you that we consider this our film.” It’s true that you don’t get the sense of Tanna being a story told by one set of people on another people’s behalf. The Yakel depict their own community going through painful change, based on a true story from their recent history: of how love marriage (as opposed to forced marriage) became an acceptable part of an ever-developing concept of Kastom. Their community comes across as one that is sophisticated and confident enough to examine itself, and to have us examine it, too.
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