Throughout “Tanna” there is community. It’s not namechecked, specifically, until later in the movie, but it’s there. You can see it in the way the kids run together through the forest, the unspoken connection that draws Wawa (Marie Wawa) and Dain (Mungau Dain) together while also giving them a reason to play it cool, in every freely-given touch between family members; it’s in the air, implicit and woven into the life of these villagers. Which is what makes Wawa and Dain’s actions all the more startling.
Set on the titular island Tanna, the movie is a recreation of the true story of two members of the Yakel people who decided to marry for love, rather than obey their parents and town elders. Wawa is the granddaughter of the village shaman, Dain the grandson of the village chief Charlie (Chief Charlie Kahla); they understand the obligations when Wawa is promised to the neighboring Imedin. But for once, they don’t care.
The balance of community over self is perhaps the most honestly heartfelt thing about “Tanna,” but the movie is imbued with a beautiful naturalism. It’s the narrative debut of Bentley Dean and Martin Butler, an Australian documentary-making duo, and their eye for chronicling is what gives “Tanna” such vivid life: The lush greens of the forests; the crisp, free-flowing water; the vibrant reds and oranges a local volcano brings. The film is at its best when it isn’t trying to be a narrative—a dramatic attack partway through the movie feels a bit overwrought, the transition between acts can feel a bit slow. Butler and Dean have such an eye for capturing life and bringing its human conflict to a human level that anything else can feel a bit like it’s trying too hard. The cast is made up of people basically playing themselves, which ends up being surprisingly effective at carrying the audience through the slower, more down-to-Earth first half, which is mostly a slice of life of the Yakel.
Which is not to say that it’s boring: As we watch Wawa’s younger sister Seline (Marceline Rofit) learn her way through the world, and start to grapple with the responsibilities of the community, it’s still a luxuriant window into the life of these people. It feels a bit reminiscent of something like “Whale Rider” or “Atonement,” watching a young woman come to terms with their matriarichal place in society.
There aren’t many movies, however, that can appropriately match “Tanna” when it comes to setting up personality, painting whole lives, and establishing the gravity of the changes characters are struggling with. Dean and Butler alternate between intimate close-ups and long, bird’s eye views almost as successfully as they juggle the opposing viewpoints of the Yakel and the young couple who holds their fate in their clasped hands. It transports you, or at least makes you want to be among the truly stunning landscapes of Tanna, quietly and effectively upping-the-ante until finally its at its highest peak. It’s the sort of soft magnitude that can only be properly conveyed with the help of the people who live it. Thankfully the Yakel people decided to share it.
“Tanna” screens Oct. 21-23 at the SIFF Film Center.