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Movie Review: Tanna

Poster from Landmark Theaters and Lightyear Entertainment.

There are thousands of stories about star-crossed lovers; Tanna recently joined this class of storytelling. However, Tanna is a version of Romeo and Juliet with a twist. It is based on a 1980’s true story of a forbidden love in a very traditional tribe on the island nation of Vanuatu.

The Yakel tribe on the island Tanna remain rooted in their customs to this day -- hunting with bows and using materials from the jungle to make clothes and build homes. They strongly resisted colonization from Europeans and Christian missionaries to preserve their lifestyle. The film uses the Yakel’s language, culture, stories, and people to bring the movie to life.

Set on an island in the South Pacific, the film is a cinematic telling of a song by the tribe about an ill-fated couple.

Since the beginning of time the chiefs have arranged marriage but the two lovers chose to walk a different path.

Wawa (Marie Wawa) belongs to a traditional tribe. She falls in love with her chief’s grandson, Dain (Mungau Dain), but is promised to a man in another tribe as part of a peace deal. Wawa refuses to leave Dain and the two run away. Tensions escalate between Wawa’s tribe, the Yakel, and the warring Imedin tribe. The Imedin are upset about the couple running away. They become intent on killing Dain who they see as a barrier to their peace deal with the Yakel. The young lovers have nowhere to go but refuse to carry on the tradition of arranged marriage. The tribes are forced to confront the idea of individual freedom in love.

Now hear their words: “You saw our love was strong, we showed you how we felt, you denied us life together, we had no choice but to say goodbye forever.”

Written in collaboration with the Yakel tribe -- who also acted in the movie -- made Tanna amazingly authentic. The actors had no previous acting experience, yet they all mastered emotional storytelling. Their impressive acting skills are the reason this film is a must see.

The emotional volcano of watching Tanna is both figurative and literal. There are amazing shots like those on the volcano of Yahul, which is the Spirit Mother of the Yakel people and the center of most events in the movie. The directors also capture the powerful facial expressions by the actors like despair, joy, worry, and love.

The scenery complements the beautiful acting. When the children run through the rainforest and play games in the dirt, you can’t help but laugh. The colorful skirts and penis sheaths worn by the Yakel people capture your attention right away but become secondary to the story.

The most impactful scenes in the film are those of Wawa and Dain together. Whether they are sitting beside each other on a tree or staring into each other's eyes while talking, it is impossible not to fall in love with them. As Wawa disobeys her family, you sense the danger of her decisions but only want to support her. The couple’s feelings of vulnerability are clearly communicated off-screen as they are constantly running from tradition and seeking a new home. There is not a moment of boredom.

If you’re looking for a beautiful and interesting foreign film to watch Tanna is perfect. The jungle, the people, and the music are not to be missed in Tanna, Australia’s submission for best foreign film at the 2017 Academy Awards.

Grade: A-

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