Codirectors Bentley Dean and Martin Butler went to the tiny South Sea island of Tanna with the express purpose of collaborating on a film with the indigenous villagers…in spite of the fact that the villagers had never seen a film, don’t use electricity, and live as their ancestors did thousands of years ago, in dirt-floor huts made of materials gathered from the bush. The result is Tanna, a magnificent and compelling film that re-creates a recent real-life incident that changed the legal and cultural system of the Tannaese forever. Tanna is an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign-Language Film. Click here for trailer. •Availability: on Blu-ray and DVD March 7, 2017 through Momentum Pictures/Sony Home Entertainment. •Thanks to Steven Zeller, GS Entertainment Marketing Group, and Wally Schmidt, Bounce Creative Group, for arranging this interview.•
DT: You went to the village knowing you wanted to make a film.
BD: Absolutely right—we just didn’t know what the film would be. The idea was to collaborate on a film with the community; to work together to come up with a story for them to act out, but we had no preconceived ideas what that might be.
DT: How did the collaboration play out?
BD: The setup was hugely important, because we were told that the people we’d be working with had never actually seen a feature film before, let alone acted in one. We went through the auspices of the Vanuatu Cultural Center, which is a magnificent organization that vets projects like this to make sure introductions are done properly, that you do the right thing about local culture. They suggested that we try this village first, and they recommended that we show a film. We showed Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes, which is a seminal film in Australia that was also a collaboration with an indigenous community, from northern Australia. We chose that film in particular because the process behind it was similar to the way we wanted to work. The villagers watched it, and you could tell that they loved it: at the end of the screening, they said, “Can we start tomorrow?” And that was the beginning of it all.
We outlined how it might actually work. We would need to live there for six months—my wife, who was the location producer, a broad term for absolutely everything—and our two small children. Martin [Butler, codirector] would fly in and fly out for big scenes. We set rules for how long it would take, what things were taboo to film, and that sort of thing. It worked marvelously. For any problems that came up, the villagers were really can-do folks, so solutions were always there. It was an amazing experience. There was nothing too difficult to achieve.
DT: What was taboo to film?
BD: The processing of kava. You can film the harvesting of it, but you’re not allowed to film its preparation or consumption.
DT: Because it has spiritual qualities, or because it’s a tribal secret?
BD: It’s very, very powerful stuff. It’s essentially the way you communicate with deeper spiritual issues and even in some cases with real spirits.
DT: Every culture has its own way of telling stories. What was their storytelling tradition, and how did it affect the final film?
BD: Obviously there’s no real history of cinema, and not really theater in the way we imagine it, but it’s a very strong oral culture. You gain status—a lot of status—by how well you speak in public, and I believe that fed big-time into their level of confidence and ability to perform in a really convincing way. Of course that’s one thing, but acting in a film is a different kind of thing. It wasn’t always easy to get the performances that we needed, especially between the lovers, because culturally it’s frowned upon to show any signs of physical affection. Getting the lovers to actually do that, let alone do it convincingly, was really tricky, until the chiefs told the young lovers, “You must do this.” That freed them up completely, because the chief’s word is everything. And then they became extremely convincing at it. I don’t think that in the end Dain really minded having his nipples squeezed on a deserted beach by a ravishing young woman. In fact I thought that at one point there might be an onset affair, which I constantly warned them not to embark on.
DT: Did you show them rushes as you were shooting?
BD: Yes—we wanted to have everyone involved in the entire process, not just the writing and acting. After we had been shooting for a couple of weeks, we brought in Tania Nehme, our editor. They built her an edit suite out of branches from the bush; it was a dirt-floor hut like all the huts you see in the film, and we racked a solar panel on top of that. She cut for about six weeks, so they saw the film coming together; they started to see what we were doing, to see these really remarkable feats, when you think about it. We’re used to the language of filmmaking, but what we’re actually doing is crazily jumping in space and time, so you have a big wide shot during the day and all of a sudden, the very next moment, you’ve got a close-up of someone at night. They got to see the language of filmmaking, and they got it right away. It was an intuitive discovery.
DT: I asked about the rushes for a very particular reason. In the film, I didn’t notice any mirrors in the village, so I don’t know if they normally get a chance to see themselves. If not, I was wondering if seeing themselves in the rushes changed their attitude toward themselves, toward the film, toward acting.
BD There are tiny mirrors scattered about, so people will use them. In ceremony times they’re actually putting on a lot of makeup, so they know what they look like. Mirrors aren’t foreign to them at all. I should say that even though what you see is the villagers’ life, they know about the outside world, they’re connected to it. They’re only half an hour away from the main town of the island. It’s just that they’ve made this remarkable decision to live the way of their ancestors. They know about mirrors, some of them even have mobile phones, but looking at the rushes didn’t make them self-conscious at all. It was actually really excellent, because they could be quite self-critical in a way, saying, “I could do better than that.” They really got this idea of the realism we were after. Sometimes the performances could be a bit hammy, and we’d have to say, “Make it real, make it real.” By showing the actual rushes, we got that point across, so it was actually a fabulous process. It improved the film.
DT: What really blew me away was the culture’s ability to change long-standing tradition. That’s probably what accounts for its continued existence. The fact that they’ve chosen to live this way is probably a contributing factor as well. Can you talk about their attitude toward their own culture and their own customs?
BD: It’s hard to describe just how central custom is. It’s everything, and they know it, and they’re extremely protective of it. I think that most outsiders view indigenous cultures especially as being somehow locked in time, extremely conservative and unchanging, but nothing could be further from the truth. There are remarkable elements that they have kept going because they work; because they’re good for them. These people are looking for ways in which their society can be strong and continue. They’re so adaptable in fact—this is a true story, remember—that they were willing to be flexible on one of the basic foundations of their culture. Arranged marriages are responsible for keeping the peace, ensuring you have enough food in times of famine: really, really important things. But they were willing to change it.
DT: That completely blew me away.
BD: Same with me. When I first heard that story, I had exactly the same reaction you did. It is truly remarkable, and it’s worth emulating, I think. It’s something that we can learn: Do things for the good of the future. It means fundamental change to your society.
DT: It’s mind-blowing, really. In a number of other interviews, you said they wanted their story told. Why do they want their story told?
BD: I think it’s along the reasons we were just talking about. They believe they have something special to offer the rest of the world. They’re a very outward-looking people. They’re not gazing inward at all. They’re not insular, and they’re extremely proud. They know that they live a healthy life. They know that their legal systems work. And they see things not going so well in the outside world as well. So it’s “Hey guys, this is the way we see the world.” They often talk about the transformative power of peace and love, not in a sort of airy fairy meaningless way: In a profoundly deep way, they’re concerned with the rest of humanity. I think one of the other motivations was they simply want to say “We are here. We exist.”
DT: Talk a little bit about casting. How did you choose who would play which role?
BD: It was largely out of our hands, I have to say. When we were discussing the beginning stages of the story and it was clear we needed a chief, they’d immediately say, “Well that’s Chief Charlie,” because he actually is the chief. A lot of the casting was along those lines. The shaman actually does play the shaman, etc. It got a bit weird when it was known that we needed an enemy tribe and they said, “We should cast the people across the river from us who we’re in conflict with.” I said, “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” They assured me, “It will be great, just like in the story we come together, so it will be the same in real life. The making of the film will be the means for our coming together.” So without my knowledge they sent out an emissary and that emissary was told in no uncertain terms to essentially fuck off. Worse than that, they called the emissary a bastard, which is the worst thing you can say to a Tannaese man. A fight actually did erupt, and it took a lot of skilled negotiation, particularly on the part of our cultural director, J. J. Nako, who was our translator and guru and was largely responsible for the film. We ended up casting another group of people as the enemy tribe, but when we finally premiered the film, they all came to watch it, and they absolutely loved it and owned it as much as our tribe. They have come together, so in a way their impulse was right; it actually has brought them together.
It was a bit different for Dain and Wawa. Everyone agreed he was the most handsome guy in the village, so he just got the part. Casting Wawa was more difficult because of kinship issues. You can’t have a relationship with people who are close to you—that’s extremely taboo—and we kept wondering why they [Dain and the village woman originally cast as Wawa] couldn’t even look each other in the face. When they explained this to us, just by luck we found Wawa in a neighboring village. She’s one of a kind. There’s no one else we met on the island who even comes close to her sassiness, her ability, really.
DT: Was there any controversy about bringing the cast to Venice for the Venice Film Festival?
BD: Quite rightly your first idea is, What? You’re taking people out of their very different lives and thrusting them into this radically different world? How’s that going to mess with their heads? But having lived with them for seven months, we knew that wasn’t going to be a problem, and it wasn’t. We had to organize their visas and passports and even their birth certificates because they didn’t have any, but they’re so confident and so comfortable about being themselves that they just took it all in their stride.
They’re always looking to get their costume gear on. For the premier at the Venice Film Festival, we said, “OK, it’s time to go, we’ve got to go to the premier.” No sooner did the words come out of our mouths than they raced up to their apartment, which was above us. I noticed the chandeliers shaking, and this big thumping going on upstairs. So I raced upstairs to see what was going on, and they had put on all their costume gear, the big grass skirts and the penis sheaths, and they’re dancing, pounding, like the dances in the film, pounding the floor and making everything shake. Picture a scene crossing St. Marks with them all in their costume gear. It was like hanging out with the Merry Pranksters. There were just great smiles wherever they went. And they knew that and they loved it. They’re just out-there people. I guess they feel very confident. Little Seline was with us and she would be on the boat in a grass skirt singing exactly the same songs, not in a self-conscious way, but singing the same songs she would sing back home, but this time just gazing over the canals.
DT: I was wondering to what extent vanity is a cultural construction. Does Dain act like the gorgeous dude when he’s in the village?
BD: I think there’s a little bit of that, yeah. I think he knows he’s handsome. Everyone certainly talks about his being handsome, so it is definitely there. Sometimes he’d almost be quite cockish in a way. One time he was just standing around looking gorgeous, and with a flourish he pulled out a big feather, a rooster feather, and stuck it on the end of his number, so it looked like an erect penis that was sticking even further out. I think that’s quite self-conscious. He knew what he was doing.
DT: As global warming is going to create more and more powerful cyclones, I’m wondering if they’re going to be in more and more danger and if they have any concept of that.
BD: They’re very much aware of the debate and the ramifications of climate change. As I say, they’re really in touch with the rest of the world and they know about it, and they also know that this will be one of the ramifications of it. They regularly suffer cyclones anyway, almost on an annual basis. Some are bigger than others, but the one they suffered in 2015, Cyclone Pam, was a category 4 cyclone, which wiped out all of their houses, bar one, which was their traditionally built cyclone-proof hut that their ancestors had always built for such circumstances—the timbers of a large tree go right down deep into the ground, and the hut is quite low-lying and really strapped down, and that’s where the whole community goes under these sorts of circumstances.
We visited the village just two weeks after the cyclone because that was the due date when we were actually meant to premier the film. We thought maybe it would be best to put that off while they were rebuilding, and they absolutely insisted that we come. By the time we got back to the village, they’d actually rebuilt about a third of the houses and they were getting the gardens all ready to go again. A year after, everything—the gardens included—was as good as new. There were some really tough times there in terms of finding food, but in a way they have been dealing with this problem for millennia. The issue I guess is that it’s going to become a bit more extreme, and they are concerned. They are concerned because you can’t have too many cyclones; it disrupts growing the crops too much. So they’re worried.
DT: Is there anything you want to add?
BD: It’s been a pleasure, from the very beginning until now. They’re going to be on the red carpet in their costume gear, and just that whole trajectory of their never having seen a film before to being at the Oscars in apparently one of the five best foreign-language films of the year says not just a lot about them and their extraordinary abilities but also the rest of the world—that we can receive something special from a people that is clearly not of our culture, certainly not of our language, yet we’re able to have this universal feeling. It just all feels very special to us, and we’re really happy to be here.
DT: What it says to me is simple: people are people.
BD: That’s exactly right.
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