Tanna movie: Oscars 2017 nominee shows a side of Vanuatu tourists don’t see

MOST Australians go to Vanuatu for its pristine beaches and glamorous resorts. This man’s experience was something else altogether.

Kirrily Schwarz

news.com.auFebruary 23, 201710:54am

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    Film Trailer: Tanna2:03

    Nominated in the Foreign Language category for the Oscars, Australian film ‘Tanna’ is a story about a young couple in one of the last traditional tribes in the South Pacific.

    • February 22nd 2017
    • 2 years ago
    • /display/newscorpaustralia.com/Web/NewsNetwork/Entertainment – syndicated/

      There’s so much more to Vanuatu than pristine beaches and fancy resorts. Picture: iStockSource:Supplied

      MOST Australians go to Vanuatu for its pristine beaches and glamorous resorts, while cruising around the Pacific Islands.

      Australian filmmaker Bentley Dean fell in love with the place on his first visit, and he’s spent the past 10 years looking for an excuse to go back.

      In the end, the Melbourne-based director decided simply to move there.

      “My partner and I have two small children, we wanted to introduce them to a new way of living. We tried it out with a holiday just to see if everyone would like it, our kids were two and four at the time, the communities were really welcoming. We decided to give it a go,” he told news.com.au.

      He lived in a traditional village for seven months while shooting the critically acclaimed film Tanna, which is up for an Oscar this weekend in the Foreign Language category.

      “I was astounded that only about four or five hours from Australia was a place that had an active volcano, black sand beaches, and was so culturally rich. I just wanted to go back and learn more about it,” he said, adding: “It was essentially a process of finding a location and hoping the story would come out of that.”

      According to Mr Dean, most Australians are missing out on Vanuatu’s best parts.

      Behind the scenes of Tanna, a Romeo and Juliet-style story of forbidden love.

      Behind the scenes of Tanna, a Romeo and Juliet-style story of forbidden love.Source:Supplied

      “There were a couple of harvest ceremonies held while we were there,” he recalled.

      “Each village takes turns to hold a big party at the beginning of the harvest for the yam, or the taro. It’s like a bush rave, but like nothing you’ve ever seen.

      “Imagine hundreds of people, men, women, children, older people as well, dancing all night. The only music is the voices, the clapping of your hands and the stamping of your feet.

      “They start about 8pm, I remember one night I had to go to bed at about 1am, and when I woke up it was pouring rain, and they kept going until about 11am.”

      Yakel village is two hours’ walk from the next town. It’s the kind of place where women wear long grass skirts and men wear nambas, or traditional sheaths, for modesty. They hunt with bows and arrows, and “cook up a bit of pig” for special ceremonies.

      It’s worth stepping off the beaten track to learn about Vanuatu’s cultures, however, Australians should take care not to flood the villages as voyeuristic tourists.

      Mr Dean and his family lived in the same houses as everyone else, with dirt floors and a thatched roof. It wasn’t until several months later he found out it belonged to a chief, who had given it up for the duration of the family’s stay.

      “It’s a very giving society, it’s all about exchange. You earn status by giving.

      “It was a huge honour. We ate with his family every single night around the fire, we shared stories. It was a magnificent experience. They even dug a pit toilet for us.”

      The Spirit Mother, a volcano called Yahul, has great spiritual significance for the tribe.

      The Spirit Mother, a volcano called Yahul, has great spiritual significance for the tribe.Source:Supplied

      Mr Dean said anyone interested in visiting the villages should first make contact with the Vanuatu Cultural Centre in Port Vila, who have contacts throughout the islands.

      He added the best way to get the villagers on side is to formally present them with a gift, like a bag of rice and some tinned fish, when you first arrive.

      “It’s silly generosity, really. I just hope we reciprocated it enough.

      “For me the great thing about travelling is just meeting and getting to know other people … even after seven months, we feel like we barely scratched the surface.”

      That’s not to say the transition was entirely smooth, however.

      Mr Dean said at times his partner struggled, as a modern western woman, to be fully immersed into such a male-dominated society.

      “She was simply not allowed to participate in important moments like kava drinking, and certain rituals, which I was as a man.

      “The other things that are a bit difficult is food, especially produce, going off quickly because there’s no fridge, and the language. You can’t communicate readily.

      “We worked with an amazing translator — who was largely responsible for the film — and that solved that problem to a degree, but it was surprisingly difficult.”

      More languages are spoken in Vanuatu per capita than almost anywhere on Earth, with four distinct languages spoken on the tiny island of Tanna alone.

      Filmmakers Martin Butler and Bentley Dean were blown away by the film’s success.

      Filmmakers Martin Butler and Bentley Dean were blown away by the film’s success.Source:Supplied

      Mr Dean said he learnt “embarrassingly little”, but that his young children picked it up to such an extent they were able to help translate at times.

      The film is remarkable for many reasons, one being that Mr Dean and co-director Martin Butler had never before directed a feature film, and the stars were all first-time actors who had never seen a movie.

      “You have high hopes when you make a film, and you want to make it to the best of your abilities. When we arrived, we had no story, no budget. To be nominated for an Oscar? No, it’s silly. To be here in LA, it doesn’t seem real,” he told news.com.au.

      The story was developed in collaboration with the local people, several of whom travelled to the United States for the Academy Awards ceremony.

      “We made this thing together, it’s their story.

      “That’s the best thing, being able to share it.”


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