We often hold up that brand of ultra-realism known as “verite” as a paragon of out-there, maverick filmmaking. The brilliance of Tanna’s essential project makes even the finest of verite pictures look unadventurous: it’s one thing to have an amateur cast, but among these remote Pacific tribes there isn’t even a tradition of elementary performance education.
For this reason, much of this romantic, often thrilling, film is basically constructed in the editing. Actors are asked to read a line to their best ability, then we cut to their scene partner doing the same, then back. There is a consistent rhythm to these shot-reverse-shots that belies the secrets of the editing suite.
Yet facts aside, it would be both patronising and simply inaccurate to describe the islanders’ performances as anything less than compelling. The leads – Dain and Wawa – have the kind of fluid naturalism usually considered a realist’s dream; Chief Charlie Kahla plays himself, but with a masterful command of emotional range; and Marceline Rofit, all of about seven, channels the same spark that made Quvenzhané Wallis such a breakout. Throughout, there is gusto and genuine feeling.
So it is that Tanna, despite clearly fastidious construction, comes across loosely, even carefree. There are eye-popping colours and often extraordinary images, reminiscent equally of John Cassavetes and David Attenborough. The story is tight and straightforward, but a little offbeat; Shakespeare, on the other side of the world. Which makes sense, as this is Romeo and Juliet – familiar, yet here made remarkable by having actually happened.
Some sequences sag, through little more than familiarity, but Tanna largely engages and, when the rhythms really click, moves with spine-tingling depth. This true-life fairytale reaches across borders, a theme of cultural exchange woven into its very production – a raw love letter to empathy, enlightenment, escape, and cinema itself.
CAST: Marie Wawa, Mungau Dain, Marceline Rofit, Albi Nangia, Lingai Kowia, Chief Charlie Kahla
DIRECTORS: Martin Butler, Bentley Dean
WRITERS: Martin Butler, Bentley Dean and John Collee, in collaboration with the people of Yakel
SYNOPSIS: Set on the South Pacific island of Tanna, this Nauvhal and Nafe-language film depicts the true story of a couple who decide to marry for love, rather than their parents’ wishes.