For co-director, co-screenwriter, and cinematographer, Bentley Dean, the journey to make Tanna began more than a decade ago. “My background and [co-director] Martin Butler’s is in documentary and news and current affairs,” he tells us from his Melbourne home. “About 10 years ago, I was working for Dateline, an international news programme on SBS. Martin was Acting EP at the time and sent me off on a story to Tanna [an island in Vanuatu] to cover a schism within a millenarian cult there. I found myself sitting on top of a very active volcano chatting geo-politics with one of the chiefs there, who was bemoaning the fact that America was in Iraq for money rather than altruistic reasons. At that very point, there was this enormous eruption. There was lava and a big flume of smoke, as if the volcano was agreeing with everything that he said. Of course, he didn’t bat an eyelid, and I was absolutely stunned. He reassured me that Tanna is a special island. ‘One special island,’ he said. It was absolutely true. I was just taken up with the magic of the place. Even back then, I was thinking that it would be fantastic to find an excuse to come back here and stay a lot longer and learn a lot more. I even thought that a feature film might be possible, using the pared down techniques of documentary: single camera, small crew.”
Fast forward ten years, and Martin Butler and Bentley Dean were in between projects. “It coincided with my wife wanting to change her job, and we had always talked about going to live somewhere with our two children that wasn’t the suburbs of Melbourne,” says Dean. “Tanna immediately popped up, and I said, ‘What do you reckon?’ We thought that we’d go test the waters. I reconnected with the culture people there. And they said that if we’re thinking about this sort of thing, the first stop has to be Yakel village. So that’s what Martin and I did. We went there to talk about what’s possible. They hadn’t seen a feature film before. We took a DVD of Ten Canoes and played it to them on a laptop. If you can imagine a scene in a smoky hut full of people dressed traditionally, and absolutely absorbed with the film. We had someone interpreting the few bits of dialogue. As soon as it finished, they said, ‘Can we start tomorrow?’”
Unfortunately, that was not possible, but four months later, Bentley Dean moved to the island with his whole family and started workshopping a script with the locals. “The seeds of the story came on that initial reconnaissance trip, because the next day, we were taken to a big tribal meeting on the other side of the island, and the Yakel people were involved in it,” he explains. “The meeting was called to resolve a conflict whereby two young lovers had refused to do as the chief said, which was to refuse to marry who they were supposed to marry. Arranged marriage is one of the fundamentals of society; in fact, it’s what the entire society is built on. Those linkages between tribes is what keeps the peace and keeps trade going. In this meeting, tempers were really flared, and I thought that there was going to be a fight at one stage. But in the end, it was all resolved with the traditional exchange of kava and pigs. The tribe who did not get their woman accepted it, but said that the other tribe still owed them a woman. And it was left at that.
“Our translator said that it wasn’t always this easy,” Dean continues. “Up until 30 years ago, this would have ended up in death and maybe even war, such was the transgression. And there was one incident where a young couple surprised the chiefs and went on the run. I was like, ‘Fuck man, that’s powerful stuff.’ At the same time, we did not want to dictate what the story was, so when we arrived, we just talked for two months about anything and everything. At one point, I brought up this story and they said, ‘Oh, we have a song.’ And we have that song at the beginning of the film. When I heard that song, I got goose bumps. The film is a cinematic interpretation of that particular song.”
Bentley Dean went away, wrote a structure, then sent it off for feedback from his co-director, before working on it with highly respected screenwriter, John Collee (Happy Feet, Master & Commander, Creation). The key, however, still lay with the Yakel people.
“It is tricky when you’re working with people who have not seen a film and who have no real concept of what acting in a film is like,” Dean says. “But what they did have is a culture that is big on oratory skills. You gain kudos in the community based on how good you are as a storyteller. As we were discussing the script, casting was happening spontaneously. I was a bit horrified at first, but it happened anyway because casting was along the lines of real roles, like the chief plays the chief.
My instructions were, ‘We want this to be really realistic, like it was happening in real life.’ And they did get that pretty quickly. Having said that, we thought that it was going to be a really long process. Once we had the structure nailed, we then introduced cameras and rehearsed with cameras, so that we could get used to working with them, and they could get used to the cameras being around. There’s a scene where Chief Charlie has heard a song from the spirits that you have to go the path of peace rather than revenge, and he’s around the bottom of a Bunyan tree trying to convince the men that this is the way to go. It was a really nuanced, difficult scene. I didn’t even know what the style of film was going to be at this stage. I locked off the camera and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ It would have been within fifteen seconds that I realised that this needed to be shot handheld. I picked up the camera off the legs and went straight in there and hovered around them as they did the performances in real time. I remember getting goose bumps, and thinking how convincing the performances are. That first rehearsal is in the film. And we just thought, ‘Bugger the rehearsals, let’s just film.’”
The results have spoken for themselves, with Tanna garnering critical praise upon its release, and then serving as a rare Australian submission in the category of Best Foreign Language Film at The Academy Awards. “Tanna does what all great films aspire to do: transport you out of your seat and keep you completely riveted as you dive into another world,” said Screen Australia CEO, Graeme Mason upon the submission. “It’s a simple and universal story told with such impressive nuance, and it looks extraordinary on screen. It’s a great privilege to submit Tanna to the Academy on behalf of Australia, the filmmakers, and the people of Yakel.”
In a further surprise, Tanna now famously landed a nomination from The Academy (marking the first time an Australian film has ever received a nomination in this category), with the film facing off against Land Of Mine, A Man Called Ove, Tony Erdmann, and The Salesman for the coveted gong. “For an English-speaking country to be able to make a film worthy of a foreign language film nomination is extraordinary and we could not be more proud of Tanna’s Australian creative team, and of course the people of Tanna, Vanuatu who shared this Oscar-worthy tale,” said Screen Australia CEO, Graeme Mason, on the nomination.
Tanna is available on DVD and Digital now. It is also enjoying more screenings in cinemas, including