For time out of mind, or at least as far back as Robert Flaherty's 1926 "Moana" and F.W. Murnau's 1931 "Tabu," filmmakers have been going to the South Seas in search of exotic cultures and compelling stories. "Tanna" is the latest case in point, and one of the best.
A prize winner in Venice and selected as Australia's pick in this year's foreign-language Oscar race, "Tanna" is as exotic as they come, the first film ever shot in the multi-island nation of Vanuatu in the little known Nauvhal language and acted by people who had never seen a film before this project began.
You may enjoy "Tanna," named for the specific island it's set on, for its physical beauty, for glimpses of a green and leafy Edenic world, complete with pristine beaches, gorgeous waterfalls, ancient trees and the very active volcano Yahul, considered to be the spirit mother by those who live there.
Or you may value "Tanna" for its glimpses of people who know the modern world exists but choose to continue to live a traditional life, complete with grass skirts, penis sheaths and bow and arrow hunting, one that is ruled by an all-encompassing system of laws, beliefs, taboos and rituals known as Kastom.
But even if you are drawn by these things, you will be surprised at the effectiveness of the drama, of the convincing story of forbidden love between two young people and how it plays out in this kind of a closed culture.
"Tanna" is the result of a collaboration between two Australian filmmakers, co-director and cinematographer Bentley Dean and co-director and sound recordist Martin Butler, and the people of a small village on the island called Yakel.
Veteran documentarians with experience filming traditional people, Dean and Butler lived with the Yakel for seven months to better understand and absorb the specific culture.
With the assistance of co-writer John Collee and the local population, a scenario was created that was based on a real situation that took place in the 1980s, and through a system of workshopping and improvisation, a narrative was created.
"Tanna" opens with a song in Nauvhal informing us that Kastom dictates that it is chiefs who arrange marriages, invariably with the realpolitik demands of peacemaking with enemies on their minds, not true love. "Two lovers," the singer says, "chose to walk a different path."
First seen is Dain (Mungau Dain), the grandson of the Yakel chief who is returning to the village after an absence of some time. Handsome and self-possessed, he walks through the jungle playing a hand-made flute.
Hearing his tune, and recognizing it, is Wawa (Marie Wawa), a young woman who clearly remembers the childhood crush she had on him before he left.
Now old enough to have her family planning the initiation ceremony that will mark the end of her childhood, Wawa goes out to find Dain and their mutual attraction is immediate.
Observing all this is Wawa's younger sister, Selin (Marceline Rofit), a youthful mischief maker who doesn't pay attention to what anyone says, not even her exasperated parents.
Hoping to remedy this, Selin's grandfather, who also happens to be the village shaman (Albi Nangia), takes her on a trip to spirit mother Yahul, that active volcano constantly spewing out an unnerving combination of steam, ash and lava that Dean's cinematography (he used a Canon C300) captures beautifully.
Selin is dutifully impressed by Yahul, but something else happens on the trip that creates a crisis not only for Wawa and Dain but for their entire village.
Co-directors Dean and Butler tell this story in a very straightforward way. In addition to the main narrative, "Tanna" spends time painting an involving picture of village life, from children playing to old women making bawdy wisecracks.
Most surprising are the involving performances of all concerned, but especially the pair playing the young lovers, actors with finely expressive eyes and faces. Perhaps because the story came directly out of their tradition, they transport us completely to this very different but somehow familiar world.
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
In Nauvhal with subtitles.
Playing: Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles; Playhouse 7, Pasadena.