Inspired by real events of 30 years ago and the first feature film ever to be shot in Vanuatu, its Australian makers worked with members of one of the world’s last tribal societies to tell a story of forbidden love set against a lush background of unspoilt forest, with an eye for both the rich beauty and the cultural significance of people and place.
Martin Butler, Bentley Dean | Australia/Vanuatu | 2015 | 104 mins | 12
If, when you saw the title of this film, it rang a quiet bell, one reason may be that this South Pacific volcanic island, one of the Vanuatu archipelago, featured in the Living With The Gods series on Radio 4 last November, when Neil MacGregor described the role of hair binding in a ritual still used on Tanna to initiate teenage boys into adulthood. From the very first visually sumptuous shots by prize-winning cinematographer and co-writer Bentley Dean, we are quickly on intimate terms with the Yakel people, one of the world’s last tribal societies, up close and personal not just with verdant male coiffure but penis sheaths, bare breasts, grass skirts, prancing shaman, tribal dancing – all you ever imagined from romantic accounts of the South Seas except that this feels, and is, absolutely real.
With backgrounds in documentary making, Australians Dean and co-director and writer Martin Butler skilfully and respectfully not only give us a quick course in anthropology, capturing everyday situations in the life of the village alongside the unfolding story of two ill-fated lovers, but also in ecology, as we see how lightly the villagers live on their land. The Yakel and other local tribes exercised a deliberate choice decades ago to preserve Kastom – the pijin term for traditional culture which covers not only coming of age rituals but also law, religion, food production and, as we see in the film, arranged marriage. Having become interested in Tanna from a visit years earlier, Butler got the Yakels’ permission to take his young family to live amongst them for seven months in 2014 to get to know the villagers and to work with them on a film. He found his story when told about an actual event which had taken place in 1987 and which had such an impact that it is still being recounted in the form of a song. As Luke Buckmaster of the Guardian observed: “the Yakel people’s passion to tell this story is undoubtedly at the heart of the film’s success.”
Actually making the film presented multiple challenges to the film makers, not least that there was no electricity so solar panels were brought in to charge equipment, and it was filmed using natural light. Acid rain associated with the action of the live volcano dominating the island was another challenge. Undaunted, they made do with a skeleton crew – Dean filming, Butler directing and also doing sound, and his wife managing production along with the villagers, and also in charge of make-up (mainly applying coconut oil to some pretty well-developed torsos, apparently). Every single role in the film is played by non-professional actors – all of them tribespeople, who give stunning performances – and none of them had ever even seen a film. According to journalist Tessa Wong who interviewed Butler last year, casting was initially straightforward with the chief and shaman playing themselves, and Mungau Dain chosen by the tribe to play the male lead, because he was deemed their most handsome man. Intertribal conflict threatened when casting the rival tribe, however, requiring amends to be made in the traditional way by the giving of a pig and exchanging kava, the ritual drink.
Early scenes, and indeed much of the film, are stolen by a mischievous child, Selin, younger sister of the lead female character, Wawa. Key parts of the action happen in her presence, and she is herself the agent of some of it, reminding me of Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream (not the only play of Shakespeare that this film seems to reference) not least when we see her running sturdily “over hill, over dale, thorough bush, thorough brier”.
Another of the other key players is the ever-present and mysterious volcano, the tribe’s guiding spirit, which we see in dramatic action but are more often aware of through almost subliminal rumbling and roaring, the sounds of which are beautifully integrated into a score by Antony Partos which is never obtrusive but enriches the natural environment the film inhabits. Yakul is a real volcano which has been active for many years and about which, only two weeks ago, the Vanuatu Geohazards Department issued a Level 2 alert (“activity is in the major unrest stage…volcanic bombs may fall…”).
However, it was a quite different natural catastrophe which could have brought an end to the idyll but for the resilience of the Yakels. In March 2015, just before the film makers were due to return to Tanna to premiere the film for the people about whom and with whom it had been made, Cyclone Pam made a direct hit on several islands of Vanuatu, including Tanna. 155mph winds flattened everything we see in the film – the forest, all the houses, the gardens – and destroyed 90% of the nation state’s buildings and infrastructure. Martin Butler tells how the villagers insisted that the screening go ahead: “They said that we still had to come… It looked like a bomb had gone off, the destruction was incredible. Only about a third of the huts were rebuilt, but everyone was still in good spirits,” he said. The villagers made a screen out of two queen-size bedsheets tied to a banyan trees, and dozens of tribespeople came from all over Tanna to watch it – including the rival tribe, with whom the Yakel eventually made peace.
This, the first feature film to have been made in Vanuatu, was nominated for an Oscar last year in the best foreign language film category, and won a number of awards, including at the London and Venice Film Festivals.
Weighted vote 88.9%