Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Remote South Pacific Tribe Arrives in Venice - TANNA at the Venice Film Festival

Tanna - Venice Film Festival
(Venice, Italy) As I dashed across the lobby of the Palazzo del Casinò on my way to a press conference, I saw a bunch of dark-skinned people dressed only in grass skirts and loin cloths out of the corner of my eye. It stopped me short. "What's all this?" I asked in English. There were a couple of white guys with them. "It's for Tanna. At 2:00." Then one of the tribesman said, in English: "You should come." As I got closer, I saw that the men had sheaths around their privates, holding them in an erect position, and not much else. I said, "It's... impressive."


From the Hollywood Reporter:

"It's not often you hear the mischievous games of laughing children punctuated by the vexed cry of a boy yelling, "Catch her! She stole my penis sheath!" But then, the tiny island setting that gives Tanna its title, and the purity of the traditional tribal villagers who enact a story tied to their recent past, give that odd line a disarming innocence. 

This unique narrative debut from Australian documentary team Bentley Dean and Martin Butler is a soulful folktale encompassing both tragedy and hope. Told with captivating simplicity and yet richly cinematic, it combines ethnographic and spiritual elements in a haunting love story with classic undertones, affording a glimpse into a little-known culture."

Marie Wawa and Mungau Dain in Tanna
I'm very glad I did go to see Tanna, which features an active volcano named Yahul, the Spirit Mother. The Yakel tribe of Tanna, a 25-mile-long island in the South Pacific, still hunt with bows and arrows, have a shaman and a medicine man, and make their clothes and houses entirely from materials gathered in the jungle. Tanna is an island in the Republic of Vanuatu, an archipelago of 82 small islands, which was founded in 1980 after throwing off its British and French rulers, who were basically in it for the coconuts. 

The Yakel belief-system is called "Kastom," and it guides all aspects of their lives. They want to share their culture with the world, which is why they made a movie, and why they came to Venice. Before being approached by filmmakers Bentley Dean and Martin Butler, they did not know what a movie was.

The Yakel are in the House! Venice Film Festival
The script for Tanna was created with the direct involvement of the tribe based on an old Yakel song about a young woman who refused to marry into a rival tribe after being ordered to do so by the tribal chiefs as part of a peace treaty. Wawa loves Dain, and will never leave him, defying the entire community to be with the man she loves.

The Hollywood Reporter said, "Speaking in their native Nauvhal language and clad only in sheaths for the men and grass skirts for the women, they are irresistible natural performers informed by a culture in which storytelling plays a vital role. And one couldn't ask for a more tender or memorable pair of star-crossed screen lovers than Wawa and Dain."

The ancient tribal system of arranged marriages was changed after a rash of heartbroken suicides in the 80s shocked the tribe into realizing that the law was harming their culture -- if lovers killed themselves because they could not marry, there would be less children, and fewer individuals to carry on the traditions. The Yakel now recognize "love marriage," and say that making the film has strengthened their culture.

Marceline Rofit 
Marcelie Rofit, who plays Selin, Wawa's little sister, steals the movie and stole the hearts of the crowd in Venice. A fiercely independent little girl, the filmmakers based her character directly on her spirited personality. When asked how it felt to see herself up on the big screen, she declared, "I feel great to see myself!"

Marie Wawa and Mungau Dain
The entire experience became surreal when the Yakels walked out of the movie theater, into the lobby and then out onto the street. It was as if two different times and spaces had intersected in front of the Sala Grande at the Venice Film Festival -- real life time travelers from another eon plopped down in between the Johnny Depp Black Mass billboard and The Danish Girl. The Venice Film Festival zone on the Lido is a weird enough venue even for ordinary citizens; I can only imagine what kind of impression it makes on people who live in a jungle.

JJ Nako, Yakel Cultural Director
Jimmy Joseph (JJ) Nako was the engine behind the whole machine. JJ was brought up traditionally in the village next to Yakel, but as well as learning Kastom ways, he also went to school on the island of Espirito Santo, the largest island in the Republic of Vanuatu. He speaks fluent English, and was the translator, cultural interpreter, guide and advisor -- the go-to guy of the tribe. (JJ also turned out to be the fellow who told me to go to see Tanna in the first place.)

JJ said that he was proud of himself. "It is because of my passion that we are here." They never expected to be in Venice, but all of them were grateful and proud: "We feel at home." The village wants to communicate their way of life with the rest of the world. They ask: "What can you learn from us?"

Ciao from the Venice Film Festival,
Cat
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

3 comments:

  1. As I dashed across the lobby of the Palazzo del Casinò on my way to a press conference, I saw a bunch of dark-skinned people dressed only in grass skirts and loin cloths out of the corner of my eye. It stopped me short. As I got closer, I saw that the men had sheaths around their privates, holding them in an erect position, and not much else. I said, "It's... impressive."

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  2. It is really amazing,Theresa. A small segment of the tribe knows the Western world exists; they choose not to live in it. They choose to live together with their volcano and Nature. What impressed me the most was how wonderful and wild and free Marceline Rofit, who played Selin, was. She is the pure female spirit, wild, young, untamed, in all its glory. Just running through the jungle, defying, the elders, and saving the day. She must be about 8-years-old.

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