Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : January 26th 2017 Contents B8 life
guardian.co.tt Thursday, January 26, 2017
The premiere of Tanna, Australia's first-ever
Oscar nominee for a foreign language film, was
as far from Hollywood glamour as one can get.
The guests gathered not in an opulent theatre,
but in a cyclone-flattened village on a remote is-
land. There were no glittering gowns, but plenty
of grass skirts. And the film's stars were hardly
A-list actors; they had, in fact, never acted be-
fore---or seen a movie.
For Australian directors Bentley Dean and Martin
Butler, their film's evolution from a tiny production
in the South Pacific to an Oscar contender for best
foreign film is as thrilling as it is inconceivable. The
tale of tribal love was shot on the island of Tanna in
Vanuatu, in the indigenous Nauvhal language, with
an amateur cast of villagers.
"It was just fabulous news and a little bit hard to
believe," Dean said in an interview Wednesday, shortly
after receiving word of the film's Oscar nod. "Given
how it all started, I think it makes it a bit more im-
The film's roots began ten years ago, when Butler
sent Dean to Tanna to work on a documentary. Dean
fell in love with Tanna's lush landscape and rich cul-
ture and vowed to find a way to return.
A few years ago, he and Butler decided to approach
the people living in the tiny village of Yakel to see if
they would be interested in collaborating on a fea-
ture film. The idea was certainly novel to the tribe,
who had never even seen a film. Though aware of
the outside world, the community chooses to live
like their ancestors, hunting with bows and arrows
and eschewing modern conveniences like electricity.
The directors showed the villagers a couple of
movies on a laptop to give them an idea of what they
wanted to create. The tribe loved the idea and quickly
agreed to the project.
Dean wanted the film to be a collaborative effort
in which the Yakel people could tell their own story.
And so in 2014, he moved to the community with his
wife and two young children and lived there for seven
months, absorbing everything he could about their
history and culture. The experience was particularly
exciting for his kids, who learned to hunt with bows
and arrows and got to run around the surrounding
mountain valleys with the village children.
"They loved it," Dean said. "Our two-year-old was
given a machete on arrival."
The villagers told Dean the true story of two lov-
ers who, years before, found themselves caught in a
tribal war over a traditional arranged marriage that
threatened to split them apart. That story became
the plot for Tanna.
The tribe speaks Nauvhal---a language spoken by
only a few thousand people worldwide. Luckily, a man
from a neighbouring village who had learned English
while attending school on another island agreed to
serve as a translator. Though none of the villagers
had ever acted before, they managed to turn out per-
formances so genuine they stunned the filmmakers.
"Trained actors have said to us that they're envi-
ous of the performances that they see," Dean said.
"They're so truthful."
The directors promised the tribe they would be
the first in the world to see the completed film. But
shortly before the planned first screening, a cyclone
tore across Vanuatu, flattening all the houses in Yakel
and ruining the crops. The filmmakers suggested they
postpone the premiere, but the villagers insisted they
And so Dean and Butler travelled back to Yakel,
where the tribe had constructed a viewing screen by
stringing a couple of sheets up to a giant banyan tree
that had survived the storm. Dean set up a projector
and everyone gathered to watch the story unfold. The
villagers loved it so much, Dean said, the chiefs deliv-
ered a formal speech praising the film for reflecting
the tribe's truth. While the directors had come to them
with the idea for the film, the chiefs said, the tribe
now considered Tanna their own.
"It just doesn't get any better," Dean said of the
villagers' praise. The fact that Tanna is the first Aus-
tralian movie to be nominated for an Oscar in the
foreign language category makes it even more spe-
cial," Dean said.
"I think it's the most exciting category to have a
film in," he said. "It's a real celebration of cinema, no
matter who you are, where you come from."
And while the film's Oscar nomination and other
accolades are thrilling, the best part of the experience
for Dean was the connection he and his family made
to a culture so different from their own.
"There's a saying there---the chiefs---that when you
connect with an outsider, you build a road between
one another," Dean said. "And there's a definite road
between us now that will go on indefinitely." (AP) Marie Wawa, left, and Mungau Dain in a scene from the film Tanna. The film was
nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film. AP PHOTO
Tanna director recounts path
from tiny island to Oscar nod
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