Monday, 20 February 2017
Rush-released to capitalise on its Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign-Language Film category, Tanna is one of Australian cinema's sporadic embraces of the Aboriginal - although, unlike its earthier predecessors, 2006's Ten Canoes and 2009's Samson and Delilah, the new film is configured towards beauty: it sends forth the most vibrant greens you'll see on screen all awards season. Directors Martin Butler and Bentley Dean travelled to the volcanic Pacific island of Vanuatu, where they recruited locals to play out a tale that, while drawn from their own history, contains just enough elements of a classical tragedy like Romeo and Juliet for white Academy voters, and the rest of us besides, not to feel lost.
It begins as a romance between the ever-beaming Wawa (Marie Wawa) and lean, hunky warrior Dain (Mungau Dain): conducted in secret in the forestry around their encampment, in defiance of elders who insist on marrying the poor girl off to some chump from a rival tribe. Yet to pitch the film as a love story is to slightly misrepresent the narrative, and where it's headed. Given the tribal songs of forgiveness adorning the soundtrack, and the revelation that this is a part of the world where people still literally bury the hatchet (or club), Tanna's key theme turns out to be the struggle of a young generation to make their peace with the mess that's gone before them.
Any confusion of genres may be attributable to the intimate feel Butler and Dean lend this drama. Presumably, this was one of those projects enabled by the kind of lightweight, low-cost digital equipment that makes it a good deal easier for small crews to head off into the wilderness and return with images of an astounding lushness and clarity. (Was this the rapture audiences felt upon seeing Murnau's Tabu on its first release?) The dimensions, perhaps, return us in the direction of naive art: the film is altogether straightahead and even a little rudimentary in its staging, framing and cutting. Yet Butler and Dean presumably felt they didn't have to move the camera much once they were in situ, because so much else here was bursting out at them - and us: the mischief of Wawa's young sister Selin (Marceline Rofit), or the lava of an eruptive volcano that backlights both an assassination attempt and a lovers' embrace. Image after image leaps off the screen and sears itself onto your imagination.
My intuition is that Tanna may nevertheless be considered a touch too small to win the Oscar next weekend - volcanoes aside, it could be taken for a community project, which you couldn't say about either Toni Erdmann or The Salesman - but it does at least pay us the honour of dramatising its big, award-worthy themes at a literally grassroots level, via a story with its own rolling, organic internal logic. The consensus is that the committee charged with vetting those foreign-language films submitted for Academy consideration have upped their game in recent years, and a nomination like this only bears that out further: Tanna is entirely accessible, indeed teachable, and yet still capable of ravishment.
Tanna is now playing in selected cinemas.