Tanna reveals more about the industry than the island

Published on Mon, 30/01/17 | Film in the Pacific

The acclaim for Tanna, a film shot on the Vanuatuan island of the same name, continues into 2017, with its recent nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.

Cinematically beautiful, shot with a relatively small crew from Australia, the film tells a story of a young woman whose marriage is arranged while she wants to marry her lover, another young man from the tribe. The real life events (resembling in the film, a Pacific version of Romeo and Juliet) eventually led the Yakel tribe to allow love marraiges in the 1980s.

The local actors were adept at portraying the emotions and push and pull of culture and love, despite being untrained and first-time actors. The media often tinged their praise for the acting with a note of surprise – however, anyone who has worked with Pacific Islanders in film is aware its not such a rare experience to see raw acting talent able to channel experiences and emotions.

The surprise comes in part from the way the “traditional” was played up in the media, suggesting people on Tanna had never seen a camera before or had much contact with the outside world. The connection of the tribe with a worship of Prince Philip also continued the presentation of people on Tanna as having some quaint, old world ideas (e.g. in the Independent ). (I was in the UK when Princess Diana died, the level of fervour and superstition around the royal family then outweighed anything coming out of Tanna!)

The idea of Tanna as living in this “traditional” “closed from outside world” or “quaint” state was more fictional than the film of course, as pointed out by Professor of Anthropology Lamont Lindstrom . Lindstrom details how the local people were told by a photographer to take off their “Western” clothes in the 1970s for photographs and how this developed into dressing traditionally (and doing other things differently) for tourists.

With its active volcano, Mount Yasur, Tanna is one of the main destinations for tourists visiting Vanuatu, with locals making use of this opportunity for small incomes and many Tanna islanders have mobile phones, houses, Western clothes and the like. Documentary crews have often been drawn to locations on Tanna where people are more “traditional” (as reported by SMH)

For the film Tanna, the Yakel crew walked the red carpet in traditional dress – a vision stunning and sometimes strange (bare breasted female islanders in cold temperatures, in many photos all the women had their arms crossed over their breasts, in an attempt to keep warm or cover up). The traditions of the tribe were highlighted visually, but unlike other films, in which the actors and director give interviews, for Tanna the directors remained the mouthpiece for the story the film during interviews, explaining the film and the process by which it was made.

Whether the film directors Bentley Dean and Martin Butler will be seen, as argued by Lindstrom, as similar to Jean Jacques Rousseau (romanticising Tahitians into images of “noble savages”), or progressive film-makers remains to be seen. As I’ve argued earlier , the bar for being inclusive of local cultures is set low in the film industry.

Positive reviews for the film praise the cinematography, acting and the sensitive approach to work with an indigenous tribe. Being documentary filmmakers, Dean and Butler, essentially did what documentary filmmakers do – live with the tribe while shooting and writing the story – but it is seen as a novel approach to feature film making.

The community worked with them on the story, identified actors for roles, story elements and improvisation, with the results that local Yakel leaders, according to Dean and Butler, feel the film is “theirs”. On the other hand, despite Vanuatu having a thriving writers’ scene (including writers fluent in French and English) and many experienced film technicians (thanks in large part to Australian and New Zealand aid to produce a drama series Love Patrol) there are no Vanuatuan credits in the script, direction or camera/sound roles. Even the music composition was done in Australia (again surprising given the local music scene).

An interesting question is then raised by the title of the film: Tanna. It’s a bit like setting a film in Wollongong and then calling the film “Australia” or setting the film in Miami and calling the film “United States of America”. The film is the story of one tribe, the Yakel, but the majority of tribes on the island of Tanna live with different histories and customs. While they may know the story depicted in the film it is not “their story”. However, the name suggests it is a story owned by the island, and therefore all its peoples. Some other tribes reportedly refused to be involved and it will be interesting to see if resentment arises if the Yakel tourism activities increase in popularity and a relative rise in income (compared to the other tribes) because of the film.

My feelings about the film remain mixed because of all these unanswered questions. It is a cinematic achievement, beautiful to watch and worth seeing. It was amazing to see a Melanesian community depicted in their environment dealing with complicated issues of gender, culture, relations between communities, relations between elders and youth. There were certain points in the film (like when the grandmother reproaches her granddaughter about her reluctance to get married with a dose of humour and guilt) which felt as though they authentically captured a common Pacific experience. However, there was also something missing in the complexity of the story, which I think could have been added through the participation of local writers. While it is often compared to Romeo and Juliet because of its key dramatic events, Romeo and Juliet is a drama while Tanna remains simpler, more of a fable.

There was a missed opportunity for the few film-makers in Vanuatu to work on their country’s first foray into feature film. If any local writers or film-makers wanted to make a film situated on Tanna it will forever be compared to the film with the same name and probably seen in the international industry as a topic which “has been done”. Hopefully some local film-makers will be able to use the interest in the film Tanna to hook funding and other support to their upcoming projects, maybe even presenting a counterpoint to Tanna’s romantic tragedy with stories that challenge Westerners about their beliefs, attitudes and behaviour towards indigenous peoples. (The potential and down-sides of tourism and the purchase of seaside holiday homes by expatriates from Australia and France – which removes chiefs and locals from land ownership of these aresa –  would be a great documentary for local film-makers to take on for example).

Right now Tanna is seen as “exceptional” because the film-makers took the time to live in the local community, understand their history and work with them to depict it in a feature film. All of this is laudable, but I sincerely hope this “exception” does not become the norm. If Australians, New Zealanders and other Western film crews write, direct and shoot all the international feature films shot in the Pacific, we’re going to have to a new genre: “noble savage” films, but not new forms of representation and empowerment of islanders through films. The next step, a truly “exceptional” step, is to work with Islanders so they can tell their stories themselves, and we can see what results from a deeper level of ownership of the film-making process.

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