Traditions may come in all shapes and sizes, but the rigid ones always seem to be the ones that last. On the island of Tanna in the South Pacific, tradition is called “Kastom,” and it’s the one thing the islanders will not yield. And for good reasons: Kastom has protected them from colonists, Christian missionaries, even capitalism. For centuries they have held fast to the unwavering traditions of Kastom, but after what happened in 1987, Kastom would have to adapt if Kastom were to survive.

The events that brought about this sea change comprise the plot of Tanna, the new Australian-Vanuatuan co-production. Directed by Martin Butler and Bentley Dean, Tanna is shot entirely on location and features performances by the island tribe of the Yakels—they are listed in the credits as screenplay collaborators.

The story revolves around Wawa (Marie Wawa), a young woman of a certain age who has eyes for the best-looking man around, Dain (Mungau Dain). Dain also has eyes for Wawa, but unfortunately, they belong to different tribes, and the Kastom strictly promotes marriage arranged by the chiefs and not by the yen of the heart and the zeal of the organs. Though the villagers all recognize this shortcoming in the Kastom, they play by the rules because they are the only rules they know.

Dain and Wawa’s two tribes, the Yakel and the Imedian, exist in a tentative harmony on the island with two other tribes—notated simply as Peaceful Tribe and Witness Tribe—a few Christian converts, and just enough jungle farmers to give the impression that modernity is just around the corner. At the center of the island is an active volcano, and it is at this holy place where three crucial deaths take place. The first one will start another cycle of violence between the tribes; the other two will end it.

Tanna is being marketed as Romeo and Juliet set in the South Pacific, and though the story of star-crossed lovers is recognizable, there is nothing about Tanna that feels familiar or even remotely European. Tanna is an immersive experience, albeit one that can occasionally feel slow and drawn out. But life moves at a much different rhythm here, and the imagery matches it, in the lush greens of the jungle, the bright blues of the sea and sky, and the thundering reds of a volcano ready to blow.

Tanna is based on a true story, one that co-director Dean happened upon when he visited the island in 2003 working on a piece for Dateline. Dean knew there was more to explore and returned in 2013 with his family to live and play among the Yakel. In return, the Yakels allowed Dean considerable access into their lives and stories, all of which color Tanna’s impressive results.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Tanna (2015)
Directed by Martin Butler, Bentley Dean
Written by Martin Butler, John Collee, Bentley Dean
Produced by Martin Butler, Bentley Dean, Carolyn Johnson
Starring: Mungau Dain, Marie Wawa, Marceline Rofit, Charlie Kahla
Lightyear Entertainment, Not rated, Running time 104 minutes, Premiered Sept. 7, 2015 at the Venice Film Festival.

The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 24, No. 25, “The moment when everything changed.”