As well acted and beautifully filmed as Tanna is, there is nonetheless something strange and voyeuristic about watching it.
As well acted and beautifully filmed as Tanna is, there is nonetheless something strange and voyeuristic about watching it. Though the film is based on a true story from the actual island of Tanna (an island of the Oceanian nation of Vanuatu) and filmed with an all-local cast, it is written and directed by two white men and presented by the nation of Australia as their foreign-language entry to the 2017 Academy Awards. That, combined with awkwardly translated subtitles, keeps Tanna at a severe distance from the audience, making it a beautiful facsimile of the organic, indigenous experience that it is doubtlessly trying to be.
Still, despite the constant presence of the white lens through which the audience is experiencing Tanna, its qualities are so strong that they cannot be ignored. First amongst these is co-director Bentley Dean’s astounding cinematography. There are shots in Tanna the likes of which have never been on screen before, including a romantic moment in front of a bursting, live volcano that will leave viewers absolutely breathless. Similarly, the score by Antony Partos (Animal Kingdom, 99 Homes) is alternately natural and epic and always sensational. Despite these achievements, the most notable element of Tanna may be the performances of its two leads, Marie Wawa and Mungau Dain (whose characters are called Wawa and Dain), neither of whom have previous acting experience. Both add believability and sensitivity to the film’s central love story. Their faces command the screen, and it’s almost impossible to believe that their only training was watching a copy of Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr’s 2006 film Ten Canoes.
Butler and Dean are both documentarians, and their chops in the discipline are abundantly clear in Tanna, which looks and moves like a real-life view into the island of Tanna’s Yakel tribe. This makes sense, as all of the actors in the film are Yakel. However, Butler and Dean’s keen eyes are also Tanna’s biggest flaw, because their decision to keep the characters and their story entirely natural keeps Tanna at an arm’s length. Though the dialogue is in the Yakel’s native dialects, the translation feels off and will make viewers feel like outsiders. And though the story is progressive in the sense that it keeps Wawa and her female relatives at its center, it is simplistic in that it refuses to get inside her mind, instead content to follow along documentary-style and let the poorly translated dialogue carry the weight of storytelling.
Though there may be no other way that Tanna’s story could have been told on such a scale, it still comes across as exploitative for two white, male directors to profit from telling the story of a black, native woman’s epic romantic journey, particularly when that story is then chosen by Australia as their entry for Best Foreign Language Film for 2017’s Academy Awards. This doesn’t mean that white directors can’t tell black stories, or vice versa, but in Tanna’s case the separation is felt in the white, Western presentation of the film’s Romeo & Juliet-style story, along with the aforementioned odd translation.
It’s hard to forget Tanna’s flaws while watching it, but even though they remain present throughout, these issues are outweighed by the utter spectacle of what Tanna does achieve. Tanna’s cinematography, music and performances would be still be exceptional in a big-budgeted Hollywood movie. For these elements to be so good in a small Australian-produced film with all amateur actors is a sign that Hollywood needs to try harder.