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Lightyear Entertainment // Unrated // March 7, 2017
List Price: $25.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted April 22, 2017 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

There's a degree of authenticity that's fundamentally built into films that use non-professional actors from around their focal settings in telling their stories, and often it's because those people are expressing a kind of enduring challenge or life-changing element to their everyday lives. From classic Italian neorealist cinema like Bicycle Thieves to contemporary urban depictions like City of God, these glimpses into everyday lives become compelling because of the truth and experience they convey, reflecting upon their distinct culture and hardships. Few have ventured as far out into the wilderness with the intent to capture a narrative feature as Tanna, however, the fruit of the labors of documentary directors Bentley Dean and Martin Butler. Planted in the South Pacific island of Vanuatu, it weaves together a beautiful, heartrending cinematic story out of a meaningful tribal song, one which poetically chronicles how two star-crossed lovers are caught in arranged marriage customs and intertribal conflict that would ultimately change how their culture would view marriage from thereon out.

Within the village of Yakel and across the landscape of Tanna island, natives continue to hold onto the traditions and politics of Melanesian kastom, perpetuating the way of life that involves living completely natural, respecting taboo locations, and conducting arranged marriages between tribes for mutual gain. It's a peaceful life, but not one without conflict, as exhibited by the violence that a neighboring tribe, the Imedin, have consistently exacted upon their rivals. And as of late, another issue has emerged within the Yakel tribespeople: two younger members of the tribe, warrior Dain and the beautiful Wawa, have built an affectionate kinship for one another. Eventually, however, the marriage arrangements and bloody history that exist between the tribes comes into play, which threatens to split apart Dain and Wawa despite their natural love for one another. Following the verses of a song telling their true story, Tanna chronicles what comes of their relationship and how the tribes handle their resistance to the customs.

Doubling as cinematographer, co-director Bentley Dean filmed Tanna with an unobtrusive Canon handheld camera, yet that's all he really needs to capture the verdant splendor of the Vanuatu island and its gracious people. This is very much a sensory experience that emphasizes the seclusion of the village and the enormous power of Tanna's active volcano, Mount Yasur, designed to be felt in much the same way that these tribespeople might feel their surroundings. Adoring glances between lovers through small breaks in foliage and a naturally flowing perspective within the tribespeople in their village taps into a raw visual experience reminiscent of Terrence Malick's work, notably both The New World and Days of Heaven in how it captures a sense of community and seemingly hidden rays of beauty. It's hard not to get swept up by the dense foliage and the bright orange embers of the volcano surrounded by the purple-gray sediment surrounding it, yet the same effect can also be felt by glancing over the unfettered beauty of sprigs from Dain's fern crown and the bright innocence of Wawa's eyes.

Tanna's natural atmosphere allows the audience to forget, or disregard, the unremarkable storytelling involved with distilled its folklore and intentions. The couple's obligation to their family and fellow tribespeople cultivates a sense of unpredictability about where it's headed, since their passion for one another could feasibly either buckle under the pressure and succumb to their customs or become a driving force for their growing individual desires. Remarkably, the performances from the Yakel tribe are, for the most part, so incredibly earnest and nuanced that they preserve our immersion in the moving parts of their society. Shamans and chieftains are played by the Yakel's shamans and chieftains, so the opportunity for these individuals to play slightly modified versions of their own personalities pours through in their personas. Wawa's bashfulness and Dain's smoldering gazes occasionally tilt into excessively amateurish territory, but the effortlessness of the performances surrounding them within the radiance of the island atmosphere keep their dramatics in check and further endear them.

Tension and danger mounts in Tanna as taboo lines are crossed and violence against the Yakel tribe once again rears its ugly head, which puts the gears in motion for arranged marriages to smooth out the transgressions occurring on the island. These rites and the shifting dynamics of "romantic" relationships amid their culture form into a poetic tale of thwarted love and unquenchable vengeance, despite the simple, drawn-out narrative not blazing the same trail of uniqueness as its focal lovebirds. Even though they're not from rivaling tribes, there's a forbidden relationship vibe going on here akin to a certain Shakespearean tragedy, as well as a sense of duty and responsibility to maintain one's cultural status quo that mirrors the likes of Disney's own tale of independence and destiny amid a tribal life, Moana. What sets Tanna apart is, of course, the real-world essence powering the tale being told, and that devotion to realism -- to getting such a significant part of their evolving heritage right -- resonates in each line mentioning the Kastom and every conflict, verbal and physical, over the lovers' fate.

Video and Audio:

It would be hard to photograph the landscape of Tanna without it being gorgeous in one way or another, but director/cinematographer Bentley Dean incorporates a candid, gradually flowing perspective that does nothing but enrich the surrounding's textures and earthen palette. With the Canon HD handheld being used, he's able to capture these immaculate shades of green and bursts of deep orange lava against the rich purple-gray tones of the volcano, as well as incredibly fine textures in wiry facial hair, sun-touched skin, even the midribs and veins of a leaves. The 1.78:1-framed, 1080p digital transfer obtained by Lightyear Entertainment suffers a few stumbles inherent with the digital medium, notably some heavier than expected grain and difficult black levels in darker sequences, but the caliber of detail and preservation of the natural shades of color is remarkable here, yielding a gorgeous homespun Blu-ray experience.

For as much as the visuals dominate one's attention, the surround atmosphere crafted for Tanna -- also done with low-budget, on-the-fly equipment -- offers an incredibly immersive and distinctly natural experience on Blu-ray, despite lower-resolution limitations. Activity frequently spreads across all the channels in the Dolby Digital 5.1 track, made up of generous and aware separation in the front channels for dialogue and a lot of the bustle involved with the tribespeople's way of life. Rushing water, walking through the forested areas, and other moderately strong effects find a comfortable space at the front end of the stage, while the vigor of the spitting volcano taps into deep, throaty bass levels. Verbal clarity is decent enough, though hampered both by the recording's limitations and that of the lower-resolution track, coming across as nuanced yet fairly thin in terms of bass resonance at many points. Other points exhibit bass thar rumbles a bit out of control, too. It's an atmospheric, potent, but slightly uncontrolled track. The English subtitles are excellent, both in spelling and in grammatical structure.

Special Features:

A handful of extras have been provided for Tanna, but the material doesn't measure up to much more than fifteen minute of content, and some of it overlaps. Bentley Dean sits down and records The Story of Tanna (6:39, 19x9), which chronicles the experience they had living with the Yakel tribe, the allowance for improvisation, the response the local people had toward the film in a screening following a weather disaster, and their trip to Venice for the festival. The other extras essentially elaborate on those points: Cyclone (2:18, 16x9 HD) highlights the damage of Cyclone Pam on the village; Going to Venice (:50, 16x9 HD) is a ever-so-slightly extended raw shot of the Yakel people at the fest; The Making of Tanna (2:14, 16x9 HD) is a painfully short glimpse behind-the-scenes at the creation of a few scenes; and What Does the Tribe Think? (3:37, 16x9 HD) turns the cameras on the tribespeople so they can discuss their impressions of the final product.

There's also a Trailer (2:11, 16x9 HD).

Final Thoughts:

While Tanna contains a sparse yet compelling tale of forbidden love amid tribal customers and warfare, its potency comes far more in how this story's being told and the impact that the true story has had since this nearly-timeless changing point in their history. Real tribespeople of the South Pacific island of the film's name play all the roles in the film, amounting to a bushel of genuine performances involved with realizing the tale of Dain and Wawa's controversial relationship with one another, notable for being something that grew out of love instead of from marriage arrangements for mutual tribal benefit. The lush atmosphere, the genuine performance value, and the earnestness of depicting a piece of these people's lives that changed them forever compensates for the marginally intriguing mechanics of how their story progresses from conflict to conflict. Tanna is stunning eye candy engulfing something uniquely expressive, and worth pursuing. An appealing audiovisual transfer, despite a lower-resolution Dolby Digital track, presents the film with aplomb, making Lightyear Entertainment's package worth a lukewarm Recommendation overall.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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