Directors: Martin Butler, Bentley Dean
My three part glimpse at Shakespeare adaptations in world cinema, which began with Madagascar’s Makibefo and continued with New Zealand’s The Māori Merchant of Venice, now concludes with the first and only feature film to be entirely shot in Vanuatu: a retelling of Romeo and Juliet called Tanna. Tanna is filmed on the Vanuatuan island of the same name, with a cast of local actors who also had significant involvement in writing the film’s script. Like indigenous casts from many films on this blog, the cast of Tanna had no training or experience, but nonetheless give convincing and compelling performances. As a Shakespeare adaptation, Tanna is significantly looser than the previous two entries. It broadly follows the tragic plot of the original play, but also draws inspiration from the true story of two star-crossed lovers from the island’s local history.
Wawa and Dain are members of the Yakel tribe, which has long been at war with the neighbouring Imedins. The two are in love, and long to run away together, but Wawa is arranged to be married to the son of the Imedin chief as part of a peacemaking bargain. The relationship between the two leads is tender and believable, and the fact that an end to years of bloodshed hangs in the balance gives the drama significantly more weight than other “forbidden romance” stories. The main characters, and the audience too, are forced to question whether the love between Wawa and Dain is really more important than a lasting peace between the two villages.
The island that gives the film its title is a lush, beautiful Eden in the Melanesian country’s southernmost waters. This single island offers an incredible variety of locations – and they are used to their fullest potential for visual impact in the film. I mentioned in my two previous entries that Shakespeare’s work often takes place in a quasi-familiar space outside of real world geography – and film adaptations are most effective and universal when they try to capture that sense of subtle placelessness. Makibefo did so by presenting a sparse landscape in black and white. The Māori Merchant of Venice did so by combining disparate styles and aesthetics to create a world that was conspicuously artificial.
Tanna uses a different approach – organically creating that sense of geographical ambiguity by simply showing the diversity of its real locations. The island of Tanna is so varied that different scenes in the film, separated by only a few minutes and a few miles, can take place in vastly different environments. Tanna’s locations are sometimes familiar but sometimes breathtaking in their otherworldliness, and the cinematography showcases every inch of the colour spectrum to great effect. From the dazzlingly blue waters at the island’s coasts:
To the vibrant greens of the jungle – nestled in which is the village of Yakel, the heart of the story:
There’s also a surreal purple mist that fills the island’s interior:
And the glowing reds and oranges of Tanna’s active volcano – atop which the two lovers embrace in silhouette:
It would be easy to fill a movie like Tanna with beautiful but meaningless landscape shots – reducing Vanuatu to a series of postcard pictures or desktop backgrounds for a Western audience to fawn over without any storytelling relevance or emotional involvement. Tanna skilfully avoids this by doing something which few other films on this blog have done, even those with similarly breathtaking scenery: It gives the natural world an active role in the story, effectively making the country itself a character. The jungle can be a benevolent entity – concealing and protecting our heroes, or it can be antagonistic – trapping and poisoning them. The volcano, too, is often referred to by the human characters as “Her”, and also seems to act with a kind of emotion and sentience.
Tanna strays much further from its source material than either Makibefo or The Māori Merchant of Venice. It takes Shakespeare’s themes and archetypes, but allows itself the freedom to add new characters and change large sections of plot. Purists may wince at that, but in my view Tanna is a beautifully shot, commendably acted, and compellingly written adaptation of what is perhaps The Bard’s best known work.