Tanna: Romeo and Juliet in penis sheaths and grass skirts

By Liam Lacey

Shot in a native village on a remote Pacific island by Australian filmmakers, Bentley Dean and Martin Butler, Tanna, is an amiable and disarming fictional film that makes the remote seem familiar. 

Native actors who have never acted or even seen a film before -  women dressed in grass skirts and men in penis sheaths - re-enact a real incident that triggered a change in their marriage customs. The story, shaped by writer John Collee (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World), is essentially Romeo and Juliet in the rainforest, the tale of a young couple who defy their elders' marital choices by eloping.

Marie Wawa and Mungau Dain in Tanna

Marie Wawa and Mungau Dain in Tanna

With landscapes, both lushly verdant and rugged and arid, attractive characters and a simple romantic story, Tanna is calculatedly charming. The perspective is that of an adolescent girl, Selin (Marceline Rofit) who, while playing hide and seek in the jungle, accidentally sees the growing flirtation between her older sister, Wawa (Marie Wawa) and the chief's grandson, Dain (Mungau Dain). Wawa is being prepared for a coming-of-age ceremony, meaning she's ready to be married but the choice won't be her own.

Because Selin is an unruly kid who prefers games to chores, her grandfather, the village shaman (Albi Nagia) takes her to the island's active volcano, Mount Yahul, also known as the island's spirit mother, to lecture her on responsibility. But things go badly when he is attacked by warriors from a rival tribe, the Imedin, in revenge for some imagined black magic.

Selin runs back to her village to fetch the men, who bring the wounded shaman to his hut. After listening for spiritual advice via songs that come to him, Chief Charlie (Charlie Kahla) decides that, instead of going to war, the best plan is to broker peace.

The Imedin tribe agrees, and to seal the bond, Wawa will be betrothed to the rival chief's son. Pigs are slaughtered and kava drunk and harmony reigns until it is discovered that Wawa and Dain run away together in the forest. Not only are the two lovers' lives in danger, the two tribes on the brink of war. 

Tanna is the kind of film that begs for further research though the more you learn about the real place, the less this kind of universal love story seems an apt fit.

The island, part of the archipelago nation of Vanuatu, rather than a society untouched by time, has a bizarrely complex relationship to modernity. Anthropologists study its "cargo cults,” religious movements triggered by Western contact, that apply magic properties to Western goods. The island is the centre for the John Frum Movement, a cult formed around a possibly mythical Second World War American sailor who instructed the locals to return to their old ways.

Other islanders consider Prince Phillip a living god (he's briefly mentioned in the film by the chief as an example of a successful arranged marriage,) Natives from Tanna have travelled to England and the United States for the reality television shows, Meet the Natives (2007) and Meet the Natives USA (2009). 

Checking on tourist sites, I see that the Yakel village where the film is set is considered a "must" stop on travel itineraries, a cultural tourist site where natives display their local dances, songs and cuisine in exchange for a fee. The film, Tanna, in its well-intended way, Is essentially a cinematic version of that same cultural tourism.

Tanna. Directed by Bentley Dean and Martin Butler. Written by Dean, Butler, John Collee in collaboration with the people of Yakel. Cast: Mungau Dain, Marie Wawa, Marceline Rofit, Chief Charlie Kahla, , Chief Mikum Tainokou. Tanna can be seen at TIFF Bell Lightbox

Liam Lacey

Liam Lacey is a former film critic for The Globe and Mail, as well as contributor to various other media outlets over the past 37 years.. He recently returned to Canada from Spain because he forgot about the weather