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Friday, March 10, 2017


Another of the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film was Tanna, from Australia. Now, you might think Australians speak English, and they do, but this film, directed by Bentley Dean and Martin Butler, is in the native language of the Yakel people of the island of Tanna, which is part of the nation of Vanuatu.

It is a very interesting and entertaining film, part anthropology and part Shakespeare. In regard to the latter, we see that the same stories of humanity happen to people no matter what corner of the Earth they live in.

In this case, it's Romeo and Juliet, but with a twist. The Yakel people are among the last to live in primitive fashion, i.e., they don't use money, live off the land, wear what would be considered unacceptable clothing in the modern world (women regularly go topless, while men just wear a penis sheath) and they worship a volcano. Of course, this brings up the question of just what is civilization. What they do makes them happy, they sustain themselves, and they live in a paradise. Why is worshipping something actual visible any more ridiculous than worshipping something that can't be seen?

But, there are troubles with other tribes. Early in the film, two Imedin warriors, rivals of the Yakel, attack the Yakel shaman, whom they blame for spoiling their crops. The chief of the Yakel, Charlie, tries to patch things up by promising a bride, Wawa, to the Imedin. But Wawa is in love with the chief's grandson, Dain. They run off together, potentially causing a war that would kill many.

So, instead of Juliet loving a member of the wrong family, it's the opposite--she wants to stay with one of her own.

Dean lived among the Yakel for seven months and heard this story, which took place in 1987, and thought it would make a good movie. All the actors are amateurs and tribespeople, and they're pretty good considering they had never even seen a movie before. Charlie, the chief, is particularly good, and a young girl Selin, Wawa's little sister, gives a very realistic performance for a child.

The Yakel people are very aware of the outside world--some of the elders visited with British royalty--but choose not to change their ways. There is an amusing scene when the two lovers, looking for a place to live, visit a Christian settlement. "These people freak me out," Dain says, and Wawa agrees. "Let's just live in the forest," she replies.

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