The Pacific Islands region was abuzz last week with the news that an Australian film titled, Tanna, which was set in Tanna, Vanuatu was nominated for an Academy Award. A Romeo and Juliet-style film, it is Australia’s first ever nomination for Best Foreign Language Film category at the prestigious American award ceremony.
Tanna was co-directed by Australian filmmakers Bentley Dean and Martin Butler and shot on location in Yakel village near Lenakel on the island of Tanna, Vanuatu. The film used a local tribe (one of the region’s last traditional communities), untrained cast of actors, and most of the dialogue is in the south-west Tannese dialect, Navhal. “We are just looking forward to hitting the red carpet with as many people as we can get from the movie over there and just celebrating like crazy — it’s a dream come true,” said Dean.
Based on real events on the island of Tanna, the film is about two villagers whose romance sparks a war between tribes. It is the first feature to be shot in Vanuatu.”The natural performances that people gave, it’s quite amazing,” Dean said.”Some of the characters are actually playing themselves. In a sense they’ve been rehearsing their whole lives.” It was also a first-time effort for the filmmakers, who had never directed a feature film before.”We were sort of in a similar boat, and so to get to the point where we’re nominated for an Oscar is a bit ridiculous, frankly,” Dean said.
It is not the first international accolade for the film, which has been making waves on the international film festival circuit. Tanna was screened at the Venice International Film Festival in 2015, where it picked up the Audience Award, Pietro Barzisa. It also won an Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) award for Best Original Music Score last month.
While the Yakel tribe live a wholly traditional life, they are not wholly isolated from the outside world. The nearest township on the tiny island of Tanna, which was devastated by Cyclone Pam in March 2015, is only half-an-hour away. However, up until the directors arrived on the island to discuss their idea for the project, most of the cast had never even seen a feature film before.”People are still wearing nambas [traditional penis shifts] … and women wear grass skirts, hunt with bows and arrows,” Dean said.
But the people of Yakel are not worried about what their new-found fame could mean for their tiny community, an issue the directors had discussed with the village chiefs. “Essentially the chiefs said ‘listen, this is something we welcome, we want people to come and learn, and if it simply gets too much we just shut down the roads,'” Dean said.”They’re proud of the fact that it’s their film, made in their language, and it’s been acknowledged in this way — they can’t wait to share it with more people.”