NOTE: I originally kicked this review off with a deeply personal reflection, but had to pull it because of a bigger project I’m working on. So, if some of this review seems odd, blame me for having ideas!
The first I ever heard of Tanna was an article in The Hollywood Reporter about the filmmakers who had submerged themselves into tribal culture on my family’s Island, off the coast of Vanuatu. Their film was considered an absolute triumph, and was winning awards left, right, and centre at the Venice Film Festival where it debuted.
I was obsessed. The reviews also told me it was a retelling of Romeo & Juliet. Any Shakey adaptation has me interested, but one set on Tanna? Oh my god.
I told my mum and my Aunty, thinking we could all head to the cinema to see it together. When I looked for sessions though, I found it only had an incredibly limited run at select cinemas around the country. None of the chains, or even the established indies were screening it. So one midweek day I took my Mum to a tiny family-run cinema in Graceville, and we watched and saw people we recognised. We recognised eyes, skin, the way they walked. We saw my great-grandmother, and Poppy, and I saw my uncle – their faces in the faces onscreen.
There is something to be said for recognising yourself in someone else, and for me, who can barely recognise herself in a mirror, seeing the likeness of a loved one long-dead in a face on a screen is like real life magic happening in front of your eyes.
Tanna got a lot of ticks from me. I thoroughly enjoyed its forbidden love story, the action and in-fighting between tribes, and the stunning cinematography captured so well by the Aussie team who made it: Bentley Dean and Martin Butler. The performances – by a cast made entirely of Yakel people who’d never even seen a film let alone been in one – were heartstopping. Perfect little Selin is utterly joyous to watch, and Wawa and Dain make a wonderful pairing as the film’s R&J. Special mention to the Chief, Charlie (yep, the actual Yakel chief), who is exquisite as the man torn between duty and family.
In keeping with the Yakel people’s traditions, a key ingredient of the film, and for the filmmakers, Tanna taps into the spiritual forces that guide each of the characters’ decisions, and you’ll be guessing ’til the end, even if you think you know what to expect.
I can’t say enough about this film, and I happily acknowledge the incredibly personal bias that anchors me to it. I might still working on figuring out how the puzzle pieces of my family history fit together with the pieces of me, but Tanna reminded me that I know where my roots are, even if I don’t know exactly how they’ve grown.