“Tanna”, a joint Australia-Vanuatu production, is being released as VOD today. (Amazon, iTunes, and Youtube).
Nominated by Australia for a foreign-language Oscar, the film features members of the Yakel tribe on the island of Tanna who live according to customs that probably go back 3,300 years when the island chain of Vanuatu was settled by distant relatives of the Australian aborigines. The Yakel will remind you of the Yanomami, especially with the naked tribesmen’s only clothing a “penis sheath”. In a hilarious scene early in the film, a young boy is mortified to discover that a girl named Selin has run off with his sheath while he was swimming as a prank.
Being bare-assed passes muster in a world where people live close to nature in what Marshall Sahlins once called stone age affluence. You labored to produce the bare necessities and then spent the rest of your time in leisure, including swimming in the Edenic-like waters of Tanna.
But it is not quite a paradise. The Yakel are in a low-intensity war with the Imedin who live only a few miles from their village. When a shaman takes Selin on a walk through the forest to teach her about taboos that must be respected, a couple of Imedin warriors spy them from afar. One says to the other that the shaman has cast a spell on their kava garden and must be killed.
That is what happens. When the shaman and Selin are on another walkabout, this time on the precipice of Mount Yasur, a very active volcano on Tanna, he is mortally clubbed by Imedin warriors. After his death several days later, as the Yakel men prepare themselves for a raid on the Imedin village, an elder advises them that the time for killing is over. The two tribes must make peace with each other since their numbers are dwindling. As defenders of a culture going back for millennia, they must preserve their way of life rather than destroying each other in senseless warfare.
A peace gathering between the Yakel and the Imedin starts off well. They exchange gifts such as pigs and kava. But one item is not so easily exchanged. The village elder offers the young and beautiful Wawa as a bride to an Imedin man in an arranged marriage but she loves Dain, a Yakel man. The two run off together in the hopes of living on their own in the forest.
I have seen close to a dozen narrative films featuring hunting and gathering societies over the years but none comes close to “Tanna” in terms of story-telling expertise, acting by non-professionals, cinematography, music and political insight.
In a brilliant scene, Dain and Wawa visit a Christian village to see if they can find sanctuary there. The first thing they hear from a couple of “saved” Vanuatans is that they must dress as proper Christians. Wawa’s grass skirt must go, and Dain’s penis shaft must go particularly. They spend a few minutes watching the converts singing hymns and blathering about God and then decide to move on. Walking away with Dain, Wawa tells him, “Those people really freak me out”. The best line in a film since “I don’t have to show you no stinkin’ badge”.