Tanna is one of the southernmost islands in the Y-shaped Pacific archipelago that is the nation of Vanuatu. But it’s also the title of an ethnographic docudrama—“based on a true story and performed by the people of Yakel”, its preface declares.
And if, initially, it can seem more informative than narrative, more document than drama, Tanna grows compellingly urgent, its Romeo-and-Juliet story becoming the story of that people’s survival.
This tropical tale, replete with grass skirts, bamboo bows and arrows, and a scene-stealing volcano—showering sparks; spitting flame; its crater’s ash-landscape—could be breezily summed up as illicit romance. Wawa (Marie Wawa) loves Dain (Mungau Dain), the chief’s grandson, but she’s promised in bride-exchange with the rival Imedin as part of a newfound peace (the Imedin killed Dain’s parents and recently attacked the Yakel shaman).
But the twist is Wawa’s younger sister Selin (Marceline Rofit). This imp, who even steals a young boy’s penis sheath and scampers off with it into a taboo patch of jungle, seems to have gained her mischievousness from her grandmother, a feisty soul. It’s through Selin’s eyes—stricken with the knowledge of what Wawa’s up to; wide as she listens to an elder—that we see how much the Yakel pass on wisdom, tolerance, and lessons about respect to their younger members. The film’s exposition (skirt-making for Wawa’s initiation into womanhood; digging up kara plants) is often the tribe’s oral teaching of rituals and tradition (called kastom).
Wawa’s not just flouting tradition but imperilling her people when she refuses to be married off; the two tribes could topple back into a cycle of vengeance-killings, even warfare. But, here, the elders’ wisdom is questioned by Wawa, boldly eloping with Dain (the true story, in 1987, led to a change in tribal customs).
The soundtrack can get precious and that active volcano, known as Yahul to the Yakel, is relied on too much to undercut the setting’s South Seas prettiness. But Tanna, pitting a lover’s self-preservation against her people’s self-protection, is a spirited saga that’s ultimately about what sort of small, rich world one young girl will inherit.