'Tanna' Provokes Senses, Glimpses At Evolving Tribal Customs

Directed by: Bentley Dean and Martin Butler; Runtime: 104 minutes
Grade: B

There's a degree of authenticity that's fundamentally built into films that use non-professional actors from around their focal settings in telling their stories, and often it's because those people are expressing a kind of enduring challenge or life-changing element to their everyday lives. From classic Italian neorealist cinema like Bicycle Thieves to contemporary urban depictions like City of God, these glimpses into everyday lives become compelling because of the truth and experience they convey, reflecting upon their distinct culture and hardships. Few have ventured as far out into the wilderness with the intent to capture a narrative feature as Tanna, however, the fruit of the labors of documentary directors Bentley Dean and Martin Butler. Planted in the South Pacific island of Vanuatu, it weaves together a beautiful, heartrending cinematic story out of a meaningful tribal song, one which poetically chronicles how two star-crossed lovers are caught in arranged marriage customs and intertribal conflict that would ultimately change how their culture would view marriage from thereon out.

Within the village of Yakel and across the landscape of Tanna island, natives continue to hold onto the traditions and politics of Melanesian kastom, perpetuating the way of life that involves living completely natural, respecting taboo locations, and conducting arranged marriages between tribes for mutual gain. It's a peaceful life, but not one without conflict, as exhibited by the violence that a neighboring tribe, the Imedin, have consistently exacted upon their rivals. And as of late, another issue has emerged within the Yakel tribespeople: two younger members of the tribe, warrior Dain and the beautiful Wawa, have built an affectionate kinship for one another. Eventually, however, the marriage arrangements and bloody history that exist between the tribes comes into play, which threatens to split apart Dain and Wawa despite their natural love for one another. Following the verses of a song telling their true story, Tanna chronicles what comes of their relationship and how the tribes handle their resistance to the customs.

Doubling as cinematographer, co-director Bentley Dean filmed Tanna with an unobtrusive Canon handheld camera, yet that's all he really needs to capture the verdant splendor of the Vanuatu island and its gracious people. This is very much a sensory experience that emphasizes the seclusion of the village and the enormous power of Tanna's active volcano, Mount Yasur, designed to be felt in much the same way that these tribespeople might feel their surroundings. Adoring glances between lovers through small breaks in foliage and a naturally flowing perspective within the tribespeople in their village taps into a raw visual experience reminiscent of Terrence Malick's work, notably both The New World and Days of Heaven in how it captures a sense of community and seemingly hidden rays of beauty. It's hard not to get swept up by the dense foliage and the bright orange embers of the volcano surrounded by the purple-gray sediment surrounding it, yet the same effect can also be felt by glancing over the unfettered beauty of sprigs from Dain's fern crown and the bright innocence of Wawa's eyes.

Tanna's natural atmosphere allows the audience to forget, or disregard, the unremarkable storytelling involved with distilled its folklore and intentions. The couple's obligation to their family and fellow tribespeople cultivates a sense of unpredictability about where it's headed, since their passion for one another could feasibly either buckle under the pressure and succumb to their customs or become a driving force for their growing individual desires. Remarkably, the performances from the Yakel tribe are, for the most part, so incredibly earnest and nuanced that they preserve our immersion in the moving parts of their society. Shamans and chieftains are played by the Yakel's shamans and chieftains, so the opportunity for these individuals to play slightly modified versions of their own personalities pours through in their personas. Wawa's bashfulness and Dain's smoldering gazes occasionally tilt into excessively amateurish territory, but the effortlessness of the performances surrounding them within the radiance of the island atmosphere keep their dramatics in check and further endear them.

Tension and danger mounts in Tanna as taboo lines are crossed and violence against the Yakel tribe once again rears its ugly head, which puts the gears in motion for arranged marriages to smooth out the transgressions occurring on the island. These rites and the shifting dynamics of "romantic" relationships amid their culture form into a poetic tale of thwarted love and unquenchable vengeance, despite the simple, drawn-out narrative not blazing the same trail of uniqueness as its focal lovebirds. Even though they're not from rivaling tribes, there's a forbidden relationship vibe going on here akin to a certain Shakespearean tragedy, as well as a sense of duty and responsibility to maintain one's cultural status quo that mirrors the likes of Disney's own tale of independence and destiny amid a tribal life, Moana. What sets Tanna apart is, of course, the real-world essence powering the tale being told, and that devotion to realism -- to getting such a significant part of their evolving heritage right -- resonates in each line mentioning the Kastom and every conflict, verbal and physical, over the lovers' fate.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to DVDTalk.com: [Click Here]


Post a Comment

Thoughts? Love to hear 'em -- if they're kept clean and civil.