Tanna Review

Tanna Island, part of the nation of Vanuatu in the South Pacific. Wawa (Marie Wawa) is in love with her chief's grandson Dain (Mungau Dain). However, their community is at war with a neighbouring tribe, and Wawa is offered in marriage as part of a peace deal. So Wawa and Dain run away, pursued by both tribes...

Although English is the official language of Australia, to date eleven of its films have been submitted for the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film. Some of these are films mainly or largely in Aboriginal languages: Ten Canoes, Samson & Delilah and Charlie's Country, the second directed by an Aboriginal filmmaker, Warwick Thornton, and the first and last by the Dutch-born Rolf de Heer. Others deal with the migrant experience in Australia: the mainly-Cantonese Floating Life and The Home Song Stories, the mainly-Spanish/Italian La Spagnola, and the mainly-Italian The Space Between. And there are other Australian productions filmed in other countries and with dialogue in the local language: Lore (Germany), The Rocket (Laos), Arrows of the Thunder Dragon (Bhutan) and Tanna, which was shot on the Vanuatu island of the title in the Nauvhal language. It was the only one of the eleven mentioned to make the final shortlist 2017.

Tanna tells a story that's as old as the volcanic slopes dominating the landscape – it's basically Romeo and Juliet. However, it is based on a true story, which ended the custom of arranged marriages on the island, and allowed for the possibility of love matches. Written by co-directors Martin Butler and Bentley Dean with John Collee, the film was shot on Tanna island with a crew of two – Butler and Dean, both directing and respectively handling sound recording and cinematography. The film harks back to a tradition of Hollywood exoticism within the silent era days – see, for example, Robert Flaherty's Moana (1926, and nothing to do with the Disney animated film of the same title) and F.W. Murnau's 1931 Tabu, both shot on Pacific islands with casts made up mostly of native peoples.

While it's undeniable that Butler and Dean are white Australians telling this story of, and in, a Pacific Island nation, they did take pains to involve their native actors in the creative process. Dean lived on Tanna Island for seven months and many of the cast are playing the roles they inhabit in real life: the chief is the chief, the medicine man is the medicine man, warriors... and so on. The cast comes from the Yakel tribe, most of whom had not seen a film before Butler and Dean showed them Ten Canoes to give them the idea. After the film was completed, and after the devastation wrought by Cyclone Pam, Butler and Dean organised a special showing for the Yakel and the neighbouring tribes.

While the story is compelling in itself, the two directors – both with documentary backgrounds – have produced a film mainly about figures in a landscape, the ever-present rainforest and the constantly rumbling volcano overlooking them. There's a definite sense of scale to Tanna which demands a big screen, sadly a much bigger screen than many people will get the chance to see this on. That said, it's a remarkable film.

Tanna didn't win the Oscar: that went to the Iranian The Salesman. However, the film did win Dean an award for his cinematography when it played the International Film Critics Week at the 2015 Venice Film Festival. Back in its home country, Antony Partos's music score won him an AACTA Award, and the film was nominated in four other categories, including Best Film. It had a very limited cinema release in the UK in February 2017: just two screens with limited showings (one of which I saw) and making only £616 on its opening weekend, which may be a record low for an Oscar nominee. Tanna is available only on DVD and on demand in the UK, but happily there is the present Australian Blu-ray.


Tanna is released by Umbrella Entertainment on an all-regions Blu-ray, carrying the advisory M rating – it's a 12 in the UK.

The Blu-ray transfer is in the ratio of 1.78:1, opened up slightly from the intended 1.85:1. The film was digitally-captured on Dean's mostly-handheld camera (though shots are generally steady, no shakey-cam here). As this film has existed in the digital realm from original shooting via cinema to disc (I don't know if any 35mm prints were struck, and would be surprised if any were) this should look pristine on Blu-ray, and it does. The strong colour scheme and solid blacks are faithful to what I saw in the cinema via a 2K DCP, which is after all almost exactly the same resolution as this Blu-ray.

The soundtrack is DTS-HD MA 5.1, with the surrounds mostly used for ambience and the music score. English subtitles for this Nauvhal-language film are fixed, white in colour.

The extras begin with a making-of featurette (9:49), with behind-the-scenes footage showing the filmmakers at work with the Yakel actors. Next up is a Q & A after a screening at the New York African Film Festival in 2016, with Bentley Dean joined by the film's US distributor and the Vanuatuan ambassadors to the United Nations and to the United States. In case you were wondering why a film shot and set in the Pacific was shown at an African film festival, the justification is that all human beings are of African origin, though the people of Tanna Island believe that humanity has its source there, Africa being part of the same supercontinent, splitting off eons ago. The first couple of questions from the audience are hard to make out, though later ones are easier thanks to a wireless microphone being pressed into action. Finally, there is footage from the 2016 Venice Film Festival (13:19), featuring the filmmakers and five of the cast attending the showing. The latter are in their traditional costumes, fortunately Italy in September was warm enough for them, and they do get to sample the local pizza.

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A compelling story, based on truth, set and shot in the Pacific island of the title.


out of 10

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