“Tanna” is Romeo and Juliet in the South Pacific
By Skip Sheffield
In an increasingly “civilized” world, it is getting harder and harder to find indigenous people who live their traditional ways.
“Tanna” is about a remote civilization of indigenous people who live on an island off the coast of Australia. “We resisted colonials, we resisted Christians,” declared the tribal chief. “But we must find a way to make love marriage part of Kastom,”
“Tanna” is a kind of Romeo and Juliet story set on a remote South Pacific jungle island. Wawa (Marie Wawa) and Dain (Mongou Dain) are from opposing tribes on their island. The tribes have a tradition of arranged marriages. Dain is the grandson of one of the tribal chiefs. Wawa is a member of the opposing tribe. For diplomatic reasons Wawa’s chief has matched her with a member of the opposing tribe, but not Dain. Instead of going through with the marriage, Wawa flees with Dain into the jungle.
“Tanna” reminds me of the National Geographic documentaries I used to see as a child. All the females are bare-chested. The men are naked except for a penis sheath. Life revolves around animal sacrifice and drinking a brew made with Kava, which is a mild psychedelic. Life continues much as it did when Capt. James Cook discovered the islands in 1774. Dain and Wawa’s defiance of the tribal elders shakes the very foundation of Kastom, or tradition. None of the actors are professionals. Filmmakers Martin Butler and Bentley Dean spent seven months living among the natives to make this movie. It is not exciting but it is beautiful; including the active volcano which dominates the island. The story is based on actual events that occurred in 1987. The main lesson learned is that all tradition is not right or just. It sometimes takes sacrifice to break out of that straitjacket.