Tanna was the first film to be announced by International Film Festival Rotterdam this year. We watched the film at London Film Festival and had a really nice chat with directors Martin Butler and Bentley Dean.
Tanna is a tiny island, part of Vanuata, a South Pacific nation made up of about 80 small islands. The film tells the tragic love story of the beautiful Wawa and the chiefs’ grandson Dain who are deeply in love against the will of their tribe. Wawa has been promised to another tribe to solve an intertribal conflict.
It is with good reason that the media often refers to the film as ‘The Romeo and Julliet of the South Pacific’. At the same time, it might be simply because its universal storyline is all they can refer to. Tanna is the first film shot entirely on a South Pacific Island, it is performed by a complete tribal village, and created by two directors who had never made a fiction film before. It is something very special and entirely new.
Martin Butler and Bentley Dean met years ago in the world of television. Martin was a producer of current affairs programs; Bentley worked as a DOP. Together they worked on SBS documentary reports Datelines after which they decided to team up. They co-directed the documentary Contact (2009), a film about the last first-contact in the Western Desert of Australia, and the four-part documentary series First Footprints about Australia’s Aboriginal history. In 2013 they started working on their first feature film project Tanna.
RMA: You have mostly been working on projects with a journalistic imprint, was it your intention to make a work of fiction?
M: It was definitely a plan to make a feature film. Bentley went to live on the island for a few months. For personal reasons, to give his kids an experience before school age in Melbourne. The whole trip was premised on the idea that we would make a feature film while he was there with his family.
We didn’t have any funding at that stage. For the main shooting period we had to rely on our own money. It was only later we managed to get some money from Screen Australia.
It would have been a terrible pitch. “We want to make a fiction film, but uh… we never made one before. And we want to use actors, who have never acted before. In fact, they have never even seen a film before. O and we don’t know what the storyline is. Give us some money.”
RMA: They must have been very interested in your film.
B: Eventually everybody was. It would have been a terrible pitch though. [Acting] “We want to make a fiction film, but uh… we never made one before. And we want to use actors, who have never acted before. In fact, they have never even seen a film before. O and we don’t know what the storyline is. Give us some money.”
B: But once we could show them something, it became interesting for them.
RMA: And before that time you just worked together?
B: It started as an ultra small outfit. When we work together, Martin does sound and I do film. Another main collaborator on the film was actually my partner who had never done anything with film before. I don’t think the film could have been made if we hadn’t been such a low file operation. We could be very flexible and really work together with the local community. We could actually spend the time that we needed with them and later during shooting.
I heard the average of making a film is seven years. We have made this in two years. We produced the film together as well. And we did self-distribution along with a guy who has a one-man distribution company. We wanted to do it this way. It’s becoming so difficult in Australia to get your film on screen, especially for a descend amount of time. So we preferred to take responsibly ourselves.
M: Have you seen the film, Charlotte?`
RMA: Of course!
M: So, you have seen the village. We lived in the middle of that village. What you see on the screen is the real life. Even the dialogues are!
B: When we first arrived we were told that the people of Yakel had actually never seen a film. So we showed them Rolf de Heers Ten Canoes. -A fine Dutch man living in Australia actually- His film was similarly made, working close with indigenous people. And we thought showing this film was probably the best possibly way to explain what we wanted to do. We wanted to work with the community and build this thing together. So they gathered and watched the film on a laptop. And they loved it so much they said: so can we start tomorrow?
RMA: Your story is based on a true event that took place in 1987. Do people still live the same way?
B: The main town of the island is like a two-hour walk, which makes it even more extraordinary. They are completely aware of the outside world. But they have made this very conscious decision to live the way of their ancestors.
RMA: They choose to live without electricity?
M: They do. The chief gave us a hut, in fact his own hut, to live in. And we put solar panels on top of it where we charged our batteries and our computers. At a certain point we felt we needed our editor to come over to start working on the film, so we added more solar panels. Another hut was build where he could work. Difficult conditions: volcanic dusts, kids running in and out. But it was great. And the villagers got to see the process of making the film.
"He came to us and said: "We know you and Martin came here with your idea to make a film with your equipment and stuff, but we just want to inform you that we consider this our film.""
RMA: Have they all watched the film?
B: We wanted them to see the film before anyone else in the world. The date we planned on doing that was in April of this year. But then a little thing called Cyclone Pam happened, the most severe cyclone in memory of Vanuata. A lot of people were killed on the island, fortunately no one of the village. But all of their huts were knocked down. By the time we got trough to them, we proposed to postpone the screening, but they insisted we’d come.
It was really confronting when we got there. So many things visible in the film were devastated by the cyclone. Like houses, crops and trees. They had already started to rebuild the village and their lives and they were dedicated to watch the film.
So we improvised a cinema. We put together some sheets strung them up in one of the remaining banyan trees; brought a projector; arranged a sound system and gave them their very first cinematic experience. It was magical. All of the tribes from around the hills gathered and they watched themselves. In their own language, watching their own story. Lots of laughter. They sung along with the songs. They were so emotionally engaged with the characters, the lovers. The older people would comment during the film and say things like: “they should have…”
And the next morning they gave us the best review ever. -And we had quite some great reviews actually-, but this one was by the chief of the village. He came to us and said: ‘We know you and Martin came here with your idea to make a film with your equipment and stuff, but we just want to inform you that we consider this our film.’
RMA: How did you get into this love story?
M: When Bentley and I went over to Vanuatu together for the first time, to talk to the community about possibilities to make a film with them, we traveled around the island to join a meeting. It was a very serious meeting about an arranged marriage. Whole villages had come and were talking in groups. They’d stand up and make their speeches. There was anger, lots of emotions. It looked like it would come to blow at some point. And this meeting was about whether a couple that had fallen in love could stay together because she had been promised, in an arranged marriage, to another tribe. In this case it was resolved. The couple could stay together; the tribe had to provided another women at a later date. What struck us was how essential and important this was. And when we asked them about it later, we were told about the story of the lovers.
B: We came to Tanna open-minded. The first two months we just talked a lot. Every day we just chatted about absolutely everything. Daily live, their creation myths, intimate details. It was only after months that we kept coming back to that story of the lovers that changed the complete course of their culture.
So we started to write. I’d write something, send it to Martin, he’d make some adjustments, and I’d go up to the village and say: what do you think about this? It wasn’t much of a script. More like an outline. That was in the 4th month of our stay and we proposed rehearsing it. They had never acted; likewise, we had never made a fiction film before. We thought that we would get them used to the camera, and that would get used to the camera. For filming, I didn’t know what to expect. Was it going to be more formal tripod or hand held?
The first scene we did, was the scene with Chief Charly. He has just heard the song of peace from Spirit Mother Yahul [ed: the Yakel name for the active volcano.] and he gathers the village to inform them. It was a difficult, subtle scene.
It took me maybe ten seconds to realize: no, this has to be handheld. And I just whipped the camera off the legs and started filming them as they acted. That scene, the one in the film, was that very first rehearsal.
"Since the actors were all non-professional we thought that a script wasn’t particularly necessary."
M: In terms of making a film, the script, or the absence of a script was interesting. Since the actors were all non-professional we thought that a script wasn’t particularly necessary. It also meant that on each day film, we would have a long discussion about what we wanted to achieve and how to do that. We would say: Charly, where would you walk? What would you do? How would you behave?
RMA: So directing was like: what would you do or say…
RMA: So, who said that? Does one of you speak their language?
B: Yeah, we haven’t spoken about him yet, but actually the key of the film was our translator JJ. He was our cultural director. He lived in the village and was educated up to high school level. He was with us every single day.
Sometimes there was a bit of a conflict between the tribes; sometimes he would come up with lines while we were filming. And we would be filming and had to say like: ‘what… what?’ And he would explain what he did, and it would be brilliant.
M: He is extraordinary. He understood so well what we wanted to achieve with the film.
RMA: Were the lovers in love with each other?
B: You mean in real life?
RMA: Yeah, since everyone in the film kind of played himself or herself.
B: The lovers weren’t part of that. First, we casted Dain. That was easy. Pretty much because he was the best-looking guy of the village and everyone in the village agreed on that. The female lover was a lot more difficult to find. But Martin, I let you take over this story. I was blind at that time.
M: We started the casting process with the people of Yakel. But none of the girls would look us in the eye when we tried to have them communicate with us. They looked down, because they were very shy.
It was really out of question to have the lovers look at each other and touch each other. That was just not done. We asked them to stand next to Dain and look at him in a loving way, but they’d stand two meters apart from each other both looking down.
So we went down to the coast, to find a non-tribal person. The hard part there was that these people would have to dress traditionally and they weren’t prepared to do that. Things started to look very tough.
In the village where Wawa is from, part of the people wear traditional clothing and part wear, you know, t-shirts and trousers. Bentley was really blind at that time. He had a severe viral conjunctivitis at couldn’t see at all. But we started talking with Wawa and she was beautiful. Moreover, she looked us in the eyes. She was our Wawa.
B: But it was still very difficult to get them to behave like lovers. It is really incredibly taboo to show physical affection in public. Eventually the chief intervened and told Dain he had to do it. That gave him license to do things that were not normal in his society. By the end of the film I think he was quite comfortable lying on a beach having his nipples squeezed by the ravishing Marie Wawa.
RMA: Are you making something new?
B: It is a great creative collaboration and great friendship. And I believe we have the same attitude towards filmmaking. We pursue a rich life. A life full of fun with meaningful experiences and film enables us to do that. I’m not the kind of filmmaker that was born with a camera in his hand and says: ‘I just had to make film’. I’m like Martin. I’m just looking for a way to pay the rent and maintain an eclectic interest in the world.
"I’m like Martin. I'm just looking for a way to pay the rent and maintain an eclectic interest in the world."
RMA: Final question: what did you learn spending time with the people of Yakel?
B: Overall what I learned was simple stuff. We don’t value enough the strength of neighbors. A strong community makes strong individuals. Learn the forest values; work with a bow and arrow. We were worried about our kids. We thought they’d fall of a cliff. Once you are there you see how much people care for each other.
M: Humanity, work-out, stability, interfamily, community relations. The simplest life. You don’t need the modern world to run a happy life.
B: I realized life would be ok if everything goes wrong. I was constantly living with this cloud of pessimism and now I feel optimism.
M: I loved to wake up there. Chickens and pigs. A splash of water in your face as a morning shower.
Interview: Charlotte van Zanten