DVD Review - Tanna

Nominated at the 89th Academy Awards, this was Australia's official submission for Best Foreign Language Film. It was another movie this past year that was recognized to run counter to the narrative of #OscarsSoWhite. Even though the movie was made by white men, every person on-screen was a person of color, a minority or non-white person. Like Moonlight and Fences, there were in fact no white people in the movie at all.

The film is based on a true story from 1987. The movie is a fictionalized drama but it was made almost documentary-style where it was all shot on location, no rehearsals and non-actors were used. In fact, the people in the movie basically played themselves with the exception of a couple who were playing people only from 1987. For the most part, the people here were simply filmed living their normal lives and that gives this movie an authenticity that is probably unmatched in any other drama released this past year or even this past decade.

It's set on the island of Tanna. Tanna is part of an archipelago in the south Pacific Ocean, a Y-shaped archipelago called Vanuatu. Vanuatu is about 1200 miles northeast of Queensland, Australia. The closest country is another island nation, that of Fiji, which is about 700 miles east of Vanuatu. The first European to settle there was Captain James Cook who is referenced in the movie. Vanuatu was a British and French colony until 1980 when it won its independence. Yet, British culture is still present, which the movie acknowledges, but the only language spoken is Nauvhal.

The movie takes place in a village called Yakel. Vanuatu is already a developing country that is rather non-industrialized. It would be considered Third World, but none so clearly than in Yakel where there is no housing, no running water and pretty much no technology. People basically live in the wild or as they did thousands of years ago, although even the Ancient Greeks had aqueducts and other machines. The most the people here have are blades like a machete. They don't even have clothing. The men all walk around naked. The men do have what's called a penis sheath, but it's just as revealing as a thong. There is no sense of modesty, except that the women do get grass skirts, yet the exposure of breasts is everywhere.

All the praise that Disney's Moana got should be transferred over to this movie for providing an even more genuine and insightful look into Polynesian culture. The movie delves into tribal relationships and a very, old-world idea of arranged marriages, along with the inherent sexism of it. Even though there is tragedy within, this movie is just as feminist and about women empowerment as Moana or any of the so-called Disney princess stories.

First off, the story is told through the perspective of a little girl named Selin. She's prepubescent, probably only 9 or 10. One day, running through the forest, she spies two teenagers having a secret rendezvous. The two teenagers are clearly attracted to each other. Both love and lust are in their eyes. The two teenagers are Wawa, the older sister of Selin, and Dain, the son of the village's chief.

The issue is that the village is at the brink of war with a nearby tribe known as the Imedin. The village chief named Charlie has negotiated a peace treaty, but the terms are that a girl from Charlie's village has to marry a boy from the Imedin. The girl chosen is Wawa and the boy chosen is the son of the Imedin chief, a boy named Kapan Cook.

This movie is adapting a true story from 1987 on this actual island, but it's also supposed to be loosely inspired by Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. It is faithful to the true story but the connections to Shakespeare's story get muddled, which ultimately makes this movie lose its dramatic weight as well as leaves the conclusion a bit hollow or unsatisfying. If it were better connected to Shakespeare's tale, then the love story we would be following is that between Wawa and Kapan Cook. However, the movie wants us to follow the love story between Wawa and Dain, which simply doesn't have the same power as Romeo and Juliet.

It's powerful because at the end of the day, all her elders want to put Wawa in an arranged marriage but she stands up and says no. Despite the threats, the pressures, and the impending war, she sticks to her guns and she does what she feels in her heart. It loses its power in the denouement, which shows how both tribes changed as a result of this. I don't see how the Imedin tribe was changed, given that they weren't really that affected. The Imedin didn't lose anything. In Shakespeare's story, both tribes or both families lost someone. Here, only Charlie's village lost someone or two someones, so why would the Imedin really be moved to change?

It also didn't help that the movie never really sold me as to why Wawa and Dain were so in love with each other that they would die for each other. Shakespeare had a lot of poetic language to sell us on the two teens' love. Here, directors Bentley Dean and Martin Butler don't give his two protagonists a lot of dialogue. There's probably just as many shots of Selin running around Tanna, then of Wawa and Dain together. We assume the two grew up together and had a love that evolved out of friendship, but I don't think that that's properly conveyed. We simply have to take their love for granted. A film like Kim Nguyen's War Witch better sells teenage love in this kind of environment.

Directors Dean and Butler do exhibit some incredible camerawork. It doesn't hurt that Tanna itself is such a cinematically rich place. Not since Werner Herzog's Into the Inferno or Terrance Malick's The Voyage of Time have I seen such great photography of an active volcano, which is great in this case because it is framed as a metaphor for the feelings, natural feelings of love for example that can't be contained or controlled, let alone fought against.

Not Rated but contains non-gratuitous nudity.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 44 mins.

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