Behind the scenes of Vanuatu’s first internationally heralded film, Tanna, is another story that captures the imagination. The traditional lifestyle portrayed in the film draws from the natural beauty of Tanna Island, where plants help animate and guide traditional life. Nearly every scene in the film is a homage to the verdant botanical culture of Vanuatu. We see neither polyester for clothes, nor plastic bags for sacks, nor precious metals for decoration. Instead, we find their garden equivalents, and the ingenuity and beauty of a material culture intertwined with the forest.
During the filming of Tanna, researchers from the Plants mo Pipol (Plants and People) project had the privilege of visiting the scene of the film, Yakel. There we met Chief Jimmy, Dain and the members of the village, who took us on a guided walk through the bush. During our walk, we collected plants and asked questions about these plants, their names and their cultural significance.
In Yakel, the most immediate and obvious uses of plant are those worn by men, women and children. As a community that has chosen to revive the cultural traditions of their ancestors, known as kastom, all of the villagers regularly wear traditional clothing. The dress is fascinating and often enchanting, as it communicates a lifestyle grounded in local gardens and forests.
The men unmistakably wear nambas—a fringed skirt with an erect sheath. Nambas consists of several parts, including a strap (akin to a belt), a woven sheath, and a fringe hanging below the sheath. The sheath and the fringe can be made from several plants such as Wikstroemia indica, or Urena lobata, known as Kotalileua in the Nahual language of Yakel.
To produce the fiber used to weave the sheath and used for the fringe, small stems are taken and peeled. Then the outer portion of the stem is peeled again to leave the pale -coloured inner stem. Sometimes, before the stems are peeled, they are soaked in seawater, where they are weighed down by stones. This process, known as retting, helps to soften the fibers and makes it easier to remove the inner stem. The soaking and drying simultaneously blanches the stems, and gives the clothing a distinct off-white color.
Women’s clothing consists largely of grass skirts, which similar to men, only cover the lower portion of the body. Plants used to make skirts, however, are more numerous than those for nambas. In parts of Tanna, nambas are worn sparingly, whereas grass skirts are ubiquitous. Urena lobata, a relative of hibiscus, is used to make the skirts. Dracaena sp., Phlegmariurus phlegmaria, and Sida rhombifolia can also be used. Local people weave grass skirts in a method similar to making nambas. First, a strap is twisted and sized to the waist. Then, long portions of blanched inner stems are fastened to, or draped over the strap.
Often aromatic plants are included in the preparation of a skirt. Euodia hortensis, a member of the lime family, has a potent citrus aroma and is worn during kastom ceremonies. Branches of this plant are hung down, fastened to the skirt strap. In the past, aromatic plants such as Alpinia zerumbet or Zingiber zerumbet, both relatives of ginger, could be used to make the entire skirt. The 3-foot-long stems, each containing numerous long leaves, were twisted and macerated, draped over the skirt strap, to form a sweet-smelling skirt.
Men will often wear aromatic plants as well, though never with the nambas or salu-salu – a long piece of calico wrapped and worn about the waist. Instead, during kastom ceremonies, a tikinupai, or armband is woven from the dried outer part of stem from a plant such as Donax canniformis or Flagellaria indica. Then, a branch of a fragrant plant such as Euodia, locally called nisei, is placed in the armband.
Fragrance plants play an important part in both clothing and kastom ceremonies. In Yakel and elsewhere in Tanna, fragrant plants and fibres are interwoven to make the clothing worn during significant events. During these times, dancing ensues without cessation from sunset to sunrise, and as dancers move vigorously and waft the plants’ aromatic oils into the air, the potent smell of Euodia hortensis is released for all to enjoy.
In Tanna, traditional clothing forms an essential part of kastom. Though many villagers have abandoned the practice of wearing nambas and grass skirts all the time, during periods of celebration this dress is donned to maintain a link with one’s culture. Appropriately, when the cast of Tanna traveled abroad to attend award ceremonies, the most portable emblem of Vanuatu was the traditional dress worn throughout the film. On the Red Carpet, Dain and Wawa sported foreign objects that intrigued many and stunned others. Nambas on the Red Carpet is not something the world of film fashion had expected to experience! Nevertheless, these symbols most clearly said “Mifala blong Vanuatu”.
Story by R. Sean Thackurdeen, Research Assistant, The New York Botanical Garden, Plants Mo Pipol Program. Mr. Thackurdeen has participated in numerous field trips to Vanuatu since 2014 and wishes to acknowledge the guidance from many communities in Tafea Province that has made this research project possible.
The directors of Tanna, Bentley Dean and Martin Butler, graciously provided the author with permission to use photo stills from the movie. Additionally, we are grateful to the people of Yakel Village and many other communities on Tanna, as well as colleagues from the Department of Forests and Tafea Kaljoral Senta, who are working to preserve kastom knowledge for the benefit of future generations.