Australia Produced Film Set In Vanuatu Nominated For Academy Award

'Tanna' gets Australia's first nomination for Foreign Language Film

MELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, Jan. 25, 2017) – One of the directors of the Oscar-nominated Australian film Tanna, a Romeo and Juliet-style film set in Vanuatu, says getting the chance to take his cast of first-time actors to Hollywood's night of nights is a "dream come true".

Tanna scored Australia's first ever nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, with nominations dominated by musical La La Land and Australian film Lion.

Directed by Australian filmmakers Bentley Dean and Martin Butler, Tanna features a cast of first-time actors from the Yakel tribe, one of the region's last traditional communities.

"We are just looking forward to hitting the red carpet with as many people as we can get from the movie over there and just celebrating like crazy — it's a dream come true," Dean told Pacific Beat.

The film about two villagers whose romance sparks a war between tribes was based on real events on the island of Tanna, and was the first feature to be shot in Vanuatu.

All the spoken dialogue in the film is in Nauvhal, the Yakel tribe's indigenous language spoken by only a few thousand people, and none of the cast members had ever acted before.

"The natural performances that people gave, it's quite amazing," Dean said.

"Some of the characters are actually playing themselves. In a sense they've been rehearsing their whole lives."

It was also a first-time effort for the filmmakers, who had never directed a feature film before.

"We were sort of in a similar boat, and so to get to the point where we're nominated for an Oscar is a bit ridiculous, frankly," Dean said.

'They're proud of the fact it's their film'

It's not the first international nod for the film, which has been making waves on the international film festival circuit.

Tanna screened at the Venice International Film Festival in 2015, where it picked up the Audience Award Pietro Barzisa.

It also won an Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) award for Best Original Music Score last month.

While the Yakel tribe live a wholly traditional life, they are not wholly isolated from the outside world.

The nearest township on the tiny island of Tanna, which was devastated by Cyclone Pam in March 2015, is only half-an-hour away.

However, up until the directors arrived on the island to discuss their idea for the project, most of the cast had never even seen a feature film before.

"People are still wearing nambas [traditional penis shifts] ... and women wear grass skirts, hunt with bows and arrows," Dean said.

But the people of Yakel are not worried about what their new-found fame could mean for their tiny community, an issue the directors had discussed with the village chiefs.

"Essentially the chiefs said 'listen, this is something we welcome, we want people to come and learn, and if it simply gets too much we just shut down the roads,'" Dean said.

"They're proud of the fact that it's their film, made in their language, and it's been acknowledged in this way — they can't wait to share it with more people."

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I am thrilled to read that the Academy has at last acknowledged that there is a need for Hollywood to present films which depict cultures which may be strange, and at times appear to be mysterious to ethnocentric Western minds. Those in developed nations such as the United States and Canada, for example, have been naive to Pacific Island societies, and have had a tendency to clump various people groups into one large category of "ignoble savages," subservient to the individualistic and materialistic norms of Western colonialism. Thus, Tanna is a forerunner of films that convey the rich oral traditions of Melanesian storytelling by presenting us a tale that exudes romance and mystery. Storytelling, such as exemplified on screen, is a primal motivation that needs to be expressed. It is refreshing to note that the Australian directors chose to present this story upon a broad canvas. Vilsoni Hereniko, for example, would assert that a film such as this provides the viewer with an official historical document that conveys the rich indigenous knowledge possessed by the people of Vanuatu. Vanuatu then, as a whole, continues to thrive as a highly independent culture, predominantly rural, yet not immune to western influences.

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