“Tanna”: Window To A Distant Yet Familiar Culture

Set on a remote Pacific island, this heartfelt true story tells of a forbidden love affair between a couple who decided to marry for love, rather than obey the traditions of their parents. Ron Ma reviews Tanna

Picture this: two lovers trapped in a society that prohibits their relationship. Although this tale of star-crossed lovers verges towards clichéd territory, it has not been stopped from emerging repeatedly. Perhaps this is due to films like Tanna, which show that even classic stories can be given a refreshing spin.

Set on the Vanuatu island of Tanna, the film is based on a true story that unfolded in a tribe which rigidly follows “kastom”, a way of living that entails arranged marriages. What follows does not deviate greatly from the standard narrative of star-crossed lovers, but that is hardly the focus. In my mind, the film is best viewed as a conflation of anthropology and cinema. It examines the unique aspects of the ni-Vanuatu culture with perceptiveness and respect, whilst incorporating wondrous cinematography. From the grand shots of a towering volcano, to intimate snapshots of tribal life, directors Martin Butler and Bentley Dean move the camera with astounding elegance. The island of Tanna becomes a thing of beauty, inspiring awe among its viewers.

However, the people and their culture remain the star of the film. The graceful camerawork is only there to enhance the atmosphere. Films like these can easily fall victim to cultural appropriation, displaying only what the directors want to display, but Tanna makes a convincing argument that this is not the case. I must admit that I have never experienced the culture personally, so my judgment of how well the film respects its topic may be skewed. Nevertheless, the reason I hold my view is because the filmmakers let the culture speak for itself.

For instance, when one of the characters speak of Prince Philip in high – almost godly – regard, it elicits a chuckle but its implications are not elucidated. The underlying concept of cargo cults has to be discovered by the audience afterwards. It would have been foolish to have the characters explain their culture; they understood it well, so why would they have to explain it to themselves? The exposition normally necessary in a narrative film is hence removed in favor of retaining the natural voices of the ni-Vanuatu. Tanna does not aim at educating the viewer and all the better for not doing so. Instead, it shines a light on this society, encouraging the audience to dive deeper themselves.

Amidst this fascinating study of a unique culture, there is still a tale of love and free will. As much as this is a vital component of the film, I do not consider it the most intriguing part. Indeed, if we assessed the film primarily based on its story, it would receive considerable criticism. The characters are barely developed and the plot is rather predictable. Perhaps this makes the film less endearing, but that is beside the point. The society being reflected is the film’s heart and soul, imprinting itself on the minds of its audience. The story may be underdeveloped, but that is compensated by the universal yearning for sincere love, one that requires minimal development. The viewer thus realizes just how similar different cultures can be, allowing the ni-Vanuatu to remain the focus, regardless of whether the camera is showing something distinctive or familiar. Tanna may not have a meticulously crafted story and it does not need to. Exploring a culture centuries in the making is a gift like no other.

Tanna, Top 10 Films

Written by Ron Ma

Directed by: Martin Butler, Bentley Dean
Written by: Martin Butler, Bentley Dean, John Collee
Starring: Marie Wawa, Mungau Dain
Released: 2015 / Genre: Romance-Drama
Country: Australia/Vanuatu / IMDB
More reviews: Latest | Archive

Tanna is available on DVD in the UK courtesy of Yume Pictures.

Ron Ma
About the Author
Ron Ma is your "average" college student who just so happens to love cinema. Most of his time is spent catching up on the heaps of films he's guilty of not having watched, as well as reading about cinema history and theory.

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  1. Callum Reply

    I haven’t heard of this one but sounds fascinating. I’ll get the DVD.

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