Australia’s entry to for consideration in the foreign language competition from the Academy of Arts and Sciences is a commendable affair. Tanna tells the story about two young lovers in the Yakel tribe, whose affection for one another threatens an unsteady truce between two warring tribes on the island of Tanna, off the Pacific coast of Queensland, Australia. Featuring indigenous non-actors and spectacular natural scenery, it’s understandable why Australia would submit this movie for foreign language Oscar consideration. However, it’s straightforward cinematic storytelling will do little to help it standout in this race.
Tanna is based on a true story about the Yakel when, in 1987, a case of tragic love inspired change in their customs, or Kastom as they call it in the Vanuatu Islands, where this tribe has existed for thousands of years. The antiquated idea of arranging marriages speaks to the questions of patriarchy that drives Kastom and the so-called Kastom Roads, which connect the island’s groups on a metaphorical level. These roads can be opened and closed by war and peace, allowing for the exchange of crops and livestock. This also includes connections made by marriage. It is this part of the trade that’s called into question when Wawa (Marie Wawa), who is in love with Dain (Mungau Dain), the grandson of the tribe’s shaman, is offered to another tribe as part of a peace offering.
The film, directed by Martin Butler and Bentley Dean, takes its time to get to this point, setting up tribal life and the forbidden flirtation between Wawa and Dain. Wawa has a precocious younger sister (Marceline Rofit) who is more interested in playing than chores, which include slamming leaves in the river to make skirts. She is the one who first spies the couple running off into the jungle for privacy. The child is curious and treads into enemy territory, which also brews up tension.
Though inspired by a true story from an indigenous culture and featuring untrained actors from the Yakel tribe, the filmmakers utilize all of the elements of Hollywood cinema to heighten up tension in the most traditional ways. As anyone who has seen and understood last year’s Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpent (read my review on Reverse Shot) knows, a story from indigenous culture could be better served by capturing its sense for storytelling, even if it’s a challenge to understand with Western eyes.
The performances in Tanna come from an inherent essentialism of these people, and there’s a keen awareness exuded by this presence. Rofit must react extremely strong in one scene, and she delivers. But the film is mostly driven by fast, impatient edits, which detract from the innate power of images such as a sacred volcano called Yahul, which the tribe regards as its spirit mother. The music by Antony Partos heightens tension as a mainstream film would, using percussive music for sequences like chases and more droning music, featuring flutes, to add atmosphere to the jungle environment.
Tanna is a film sure to please audiences, but there’s something about the ennobling of these people that seems too clean, even if the couple say “These people freak me out” about a Christian colony ready to take them in. There’s a simplifying of the issue that walks too straight a line to make for a memorable, compelling movie. As agreeable as the film feels, I doubt it would be enough to capture the attention of AMPAS.
Tanna runs 100 minutes, is in Nauvhal with English subtitles and is not rated (there’s some casual nudity and violence). It opened in our South Florida area exclusively on Friday, Sept. 30, at Savor Cinema Lauderdale (formerly Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale). On Oct. 7 it moves to Boca Raton’s Living Room Theaters and then, on Oct. 14, it returns to Broward at Cinema Paradiso Hollywood. All images provided by Lightyear Entertainment as well as a screener link for the purpose of this review.