It is a funny sight. Here we are, in the middle of Venice, walking past floating palaces, slow moving gondolas and hordes of tourists snapping away in all directions. The wondrous St Mark’s Square is full of people who are not from Venice, but somehow belong, in the middle of the chaotic, marvelous, ‘Disneyland-esque’, scene that is all around. And right bang in the middle, there are five people from Tanna, dressed in their traditional costume, looking positively dark against the white marble, and the only people who definitely do not belong in this somehow dislocated landscape.
We are walking across St Mark’s Square to catch the ferry that will take us to Lido Island, where the Venice International Film Festival is taking place. Today is the official screening of the movie, and the cast and crew are having their shot at the red carpet. The press interviews are one of many photo sessions for these guys, who have been launched into a world that is galaxies away from their universe. Part exhausted, part excited and part scared of all the commotion around them, one can’t help but wonder what they must think of this ‘tin blong waet man’.
When we enter the pressroom, where many eager stars have been before, dozens of photographers are waiting around the elevated amphitheatre platform. The cast position themselves on the stage. The photographers shoot at them ‘Look right!’ ‘Look left!’ It is photo frenzy! Selin’s eyes, the little girl in the movie who stole our hearts, are wide open and her smile is going from ear to ear. Dain and Wawa, the main actors, are a little timid, not quite sure of what the fuss is all about, or what exactly is expected of them. Acting humbly, they look shyly but proudly at the cameras, lights flashing all around, the most unlikely movie stars.
After the press is satisfied with the many pictures that will make the front page of the newspapers the next day, we walk into the theatre. It is not the first time that the cast has seen the movie on the big screen, it was shown at Yakel village months ago, when it was first completed, just after cyclone Pam hit the islands. It is the first time for me, though, and the rest of the audience in the theatre.
The film is beautiful. It is extraordinary. It is breathtaking. It transpires the peaceful, musical rhythm of life in the islands. It is one of those few films that are simply special, no other like it. At the end of the movie, I can’t hold back my tears, I hear others sniffling behind me. The lights come on and the actors receive a standing ovation from the audience.
The cast is invited on stage for a round of Q&A. At the end of it, they break into dance, one of the traditional dances from Tanna.
I notice the reaction of people wherever we go and it dawns on me that what the people of Yakel are spreading in their wake is happiness.
It all started back in 2013 when documentary filmmaker Bentley Dean and his wife Janita Suter, decided that it was time to show their children a world outside the suburbs of Melbourne, where nature was Queen and food did not come in cans and plastic wrappers.
Bentley had been to Vanuatu and Tanna back in 2004, while filming for SBS current affairs program Dateline, and shared his thoughts with Janita; what about spending six months with the children at one of the traditional villages in Tanna?
In Bentley’s mind, there was also another thought, an idea he had, of making a feature film, that would be acted not by actors, but by the real people that lived in the village and would tell a story, not his story, but their story, in their own language, and following their kastom.
Bentley had never made a feature film before but he was no stranger to working with indigenous and traditional societies. In 2009, he and his partner Martin Butler produced and filmed the award winning documentary Contact, documenting the first contact of the last desert people in Australia with ‘modern’ civilization. In later years, together they made ‘First Footprints’ a four part documentary series about Australia’s 50,000 years of Aboriginal history. Martin had spent the previous 25 years producing award-winning documentary reports for Foreign Correspondent, Four Corners and Dateline. “When Bentley first told me his idea of going to live on Tanna and making a feature film, I thought it was an ambitious plan, if not foolhardy. Neither of us had made feature films before. But we had the advantage of owning all the equipment that a two person crew would need for months of filming and had developed a way of filming with traditional people based on mutual respect and personal rapport,” he explained.
It was Jacob Kapere, head of Tanna’s Cultural Centre, who suggested Yakel as the village for Bentley and his family to spend some time in and perhaps, make a movie. Yakel is one of the few villages left in Vanuatu that have chosen to remain true to their kastom and follow a completely traditional way of life. Their buildings, utensils and clothes are all made from the materials found in the surrounding forest. They hunt in the traditional way, using bows and arrows and spears and tend to their vegetable gardens.
Having no idea of what Yakel’s position would be, on their first visit, they decided to show the Australian film Ten Canoes, as an introduction to the type of film they would make. The people of Yakel, loved it, totally and completely.
Bentley and Martin returned to Australia and Bentley and Janita got the family ready for their big adventure.
Two months later, in January 2014, they returned to Tanna, and to Yakel, where they would remain, without leaving the island, for seven months. The village of Yakel had built a small house for them to live and for the first two months they didn’t film and instead, just lived and got to know a culture so different from their own.
Initially, there was no set story for the film. The great love story was formed and cemented during their time in Tanna, as they experienced life and the history and kastom of Yakel and neighboring villages. It all came together as a perfect synchronicity of events, one rolling into the next. During their first visit, Bentley and Martin were taken to the other side of the island to witness a peace kastom ceremony after a couple fell in love and the bride, promised to another tribe, could not be given away. Later, on their next visit, Bentley heard a song about the two lovers who back in the ‘80s, defied the laws of arranged marriage. “The young lovers’ story changed the course of kastom on the island. Tanna is a cinematic translation of the song, and the universally transformative power of love,” explains Bentley.
Once the story idea was clear in their minds, casting commenced. “There was a lot of life meeting art in the process of casting,” explains Martin. “The chief of Yakel, Chief Charlie, actually plays the Chief of Yakel. The Medicine Man plays the Medicine Man. Mungau who plays Dain, was the most handsome man in the village and everyone readily agreed that he should play the leading man. Marie, who plays Wawa, took a long time to find but the instant we saw her, we knew she was the one.”
And this is how the people from Yakel and neighboring villages, people who had never seen a camera or a movie, who dress in clothes made with grass and are one of few remaining hunter and gathering societies, became actors.
In March 2014, Martin, Bentley, Janita, cultural director and translator Jimmy Joseph Nako, aka JJ, and the cast, began filming. Every morning, they would get up, assemble their gear, and proceed to the location for the day.
“It soon became clear that my fear of our two and four year olds getting lost in the jungle would not happen,” explains Janita. “It was impossible to go anywhere without a gaggle of Yakel kids holding your hands. Our kids were absorbed into village life, picked up the language, went on adventures and visited families we had never met up the mountain and ate bats and BBQ pigs’ intestines wound on sticks while we went off to film.”
The script was created between Bentley, Martin, JJ and the village of Yakel, who would sit together to discuss every sentence being written. Following the script, every scene was developed through work-shopping and improvisation on location. “At the start of every scene, we would ask everyone what would have happened in real life, where people would sit, what everyone would say. Essential lines were hit but we always left room for the spontaneous performances that everyone excelled at. Because we had discussed the story together for many months, everyone knew the emotional arc of each scene and could move freely within character,” explains Martin.
The film went along, smoothly overall, creating unforgettable moments for them all. “Every time we filmed at the volcano was a memorable moment for me. The Spirit Mother, Yahul, has many moods. On the first trip we made, She killed the camera with acid rain,” retells Bentley. But Yahul must have been happy with the overall result. “On the last trip, a perfectly timed eruption created what could be one of the great rendezvous of lovers in cinema! It was impossible to be in the presence of Yahul and not feel our planet is alive.”
For little Selin, Yahul was quite memorable as well. She had never seen the volcano before making this film and her awe was captured in that first gripping scene at Mount Yasur. Selin, the narrative glue of the story and a little dynamo of energy and joy, was asked at the premier of Tanna in Vanuatu how could she run so fast? “In my village I am always active,” she said, “because I am always happy.”
During filming, the crew lived the traditional life of Yakel. The showers were taken at the waterfall, bat, birds and other hunted food was eaten. “What impressed me the most is how nothing is wasted. The materials that nature provides are used to build everything, from houses to work benches or plates,” said Bentley. The experience was not without hardship as well. Bentley contracted severe viral conjunctivitis at one point and almost had to return to Australia to get medical attention, their children contracted mild salmonella and diarrhea, and colds, cuts and minor ailments were dealt with in the village, using the traditional medicine, and well, a little help from modern antibiotics as well. But it was all very much worth it in the end. “For me this was an extremely rare opportunity to live with a completely traditional society,” explains Martin. “The joy of filming in the village, in an environment both challenging and fascinating, was invigorating.”
Towards the end of filming, Bentley and Martin brought in film editor Tania Nehme to start editing the film on location. Tania had previously edited Contact and First Foot prints as well as being film editor for the feature film ‘Ten Canoes’. Far from a high-tech studio, Tania sat on the dirt floor of a grass hut, working on her laptop to bring magic into what Bentley and the team had captured. “She is incredible at what she does,” explains Bentley. “Film editors often don’t get enough credit for their work. She made the story come alive. She took all this footage and made the film sing.” In July 2014, after six months and over one hundred hours of recorded film, Tanna was completed.
Tanna is a deeply moving love story shaped by a collection of brilliant performances taking place within the realms of outstanding filmography set in the lush, dramatic landscapes of Tanna island.
The film was approved by the Cultural Centre, which retains all the original footage, while Yakel village retains the sound recording. The film also provided income for the actors and the village, and some of the income that the village received was invested into organizing a massive circumcision ceremony in which several villages participated. “This is a very important part of our kastom, and for many years, we have not been able to hold one,” explains JJ.
Produced by their own production company, Contact Films, with help from Australian Government Film Funding Agencies such as Screen Australia, Co-producer Carolyn Johnson has been in charge of acquiring the funds that were needed to make this film a reality. Originally a merchant banker with a degree in Economics, in her late thirties Carolyn started to wonder what her legacy would be if she continued as a merchant banker for the rest of her life. The answer was obvious and so quitting a very lucrative career, she decided to go into film, and for the past 20 years she has been making a lot less money but gaining unquantifiable joy and personal reward as a film producer.
“For me, the most special thing about this film is that it tells the story of a community living under different rules. Non-materialistic, able to live in complete harmony with nature, right here and right now. It shows that the way we, ‘modern’ societies, live is not the only way.” For all those involved in the project, more than a commercial venture, it was a project of love, to create a film that had never been done before, documenting the lives and kastom of such a unique society. Every kastom song, dance and practice related in the film are part of the real tradition of Yakel and neighboring villages and tribes. “We are proud of our kastom,” explains JJ, “we want to keep our kastom alive and we would like to share it with the world. This is why we think this film is good, because it allows us to share our kastom and will help make it stronger.”
Since its premier, Tanna has gone from strength to strength. At the International Venice Film Festival, Tanna won the Audience Award (Best Film) and Best Cinematography by Venice Critics Week. The film also premiered at the Adelaide Film Festival last October and the BFI London film festival where it received special commendation from the Jury. With outstanding reviews from critics across the world, the crew agrees that the best review they received is the one given by the chiefs, after much internal discussion, the day it first premiered at Yakel. “The film reflects the truth and will help keep Kastom strong. We know you came here with your equipment and idea to make a film, but we want to inform you that we consider this our film.”
Back in Venice, we slowly made our way to the apartment, after a long, full and successful day of press interviews and photo shoots. As this was the first time overseas for most of the cast, I was eager to ask them what they thought of the ‘modern’ world. “Here, they have a lot of buildings, and a lot of food, and it is very beautiful,” explained Lingai – Wawa’s father in the film – enthusiastically, “but you also need a lot of money to buy this food and live in these buildings, and to get all that money, you have to work very hard, all the time.
Where I live, my house is small but I go to the gardens or to the forest and the river and I have everything I need.” Dain agreed. “Once I lived in the capital of Vanuatu,” he says. “There, I had to work as I needed money for everything. I worked as a gardener and the boss told me every day what I had to do. I did not like it. At home, in Yakel, I am my own boss.” So if anyone had any fear that these budding actors will farewell their traditional village, seduced by a life of stardom and debauchery, they can rest assured, the people of Yakel know the life they want to protect.
A tribute to love and peace, and a reminder of the powerful connection with nature that humans have, a must see movie for everyone.