Director: Bentley Dean, Martin Butler
Cast: Marceline Rofit, Mungau Dain, Marie Wawa
Watch Tanna online in the UK: NOW TV / Curzon Home Cinema
“Don’t be afraid of her. Let’s go closer,” a village shaman tells his granddaughter, Selin (Rofit), at the start of romantic drama Tanna. “Her”, though, isn’t a person or an animal, but something else entirely: it’s a volcano. A volcano in a love story? To say that Tanna isn’t your typical movie is an understatement.
The very first film shot in Vanuatu, Tanna is a stunning insight into the eponymous South Pacific island and an accessible tale of star-crossed passion – an astonishing blend of the familiar and the new.
Our lovers are Wawa (Marie Wawa) and Dain (Mungau Dain) of the Yakel tribe, who fall for each other. That wouldn’t be a problem, if it weren’t for the the fact that their tribe is currently at war with the neighbouring Imedin clan – and, as part of the peace negotiations, Wawa has been promised in marriage to a man from their rivals. The deal is brokered by Chief Charlie, the father of Dain. So when the likeable Selin, who loves nothing more than running off into more perilous parts of the island, stumbles across Wawa and Dain, she is sworn to keep their affair secret.
It’s a tale as old as time, from Romeo and Juliet to Titanic, but Tanna brings it to life with fresh eyes. That’s partly thanks to the non-professional nature of the cast. Directors Bentley Dean and Martin Butler have their roots in documentary filmmaking, which puts them in the perfect place to draw out the natural interactions of these untrained actors. After living with the Yakel for months, they wrote their screenplay based on a local legend of a forbidden couple, one that they crafted in collaboration with the performers and others in the community.
That consent, respect and sincerity runs through every element of the production, from the gentle profile of everyday life on the island to the unintrusive portrait of the coming-of-age ritual Wawa must undergo. It’s a movie that understands the violent impact Wawa and Dain’s decision to flee has upon the whole community, while welcoming outsiders to bear witness in a way that feels completely at home with its surroundings.
Those surroundings are at the heart of this remarkable piece of cinema. Wawa and Dain click beautifully together, a synergy that seems permanently echoed in the beauty we glimpse around them. Yet the gorgeous scenery doesn’t steal the show; it’s not dwelled upon in the way that Hollywood’s western perspective might normally dictate, which only makes the immediate human drama all the more engaging. One breathtaking scene takes us back to the volcano we saw earlier, said to be home to the island’s ancient spirit, Yahul. As our couple embrace, lava engulfs the frame, silhouetting their fierce emotions against a fiery backdrop. You’ve never seen anything like it. From the unusual language to the never-before-filmed landscape, Tanna is a dazzling voyage into the unknown. But it’s never afraid – and the closer we get, the more this unique place rings with universal power.
Tanna is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £9.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription – with a 14-day free trial.