'Tanna' director recounts path from tiny island to Oscar nod
This image released by Lightyear Entertainment shows 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 on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017. The 89th Academy Awards will take place on Feb. 26. (Philippe Penel/Lightyear Entertainment via AP)
SYDNEY — The premiere of ‘Tanna,’ Australia’s first-ever Oscar nominee for a foreign language film, was as far from Hollywood glamor as one can get. The guests gathered not in an opulent theatre, but in a cyclone-flattened village on a remote island. 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 even acted before — 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 on Wednesday, shortly after receiving word of the film’s Oscar nod. ‘Given how it all started, I think it makes it a bit more improbable.’
The film’s roots began 10 years ago, when Butler sent Dean to Tanna to work on a documentary. Dean fell in love with Tanna’s lush landscape and rich culture 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 feature 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 2-year-old was given a machete on arrival.’
The villagers told Dean the true story of two lovers 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 neighboring 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 performances so genuine they stunned the filmmakers.
‘Trained actors have said to us that they’re envious 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 come anyway.
And so Dean and Butler traveled 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 delivered 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 Australian movie to be nominated for an Oscar in the foreign language category makes it even more special, 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.’