27 Jul 2016

One of the world's last tribal societies

From Nine To Noon, 10:08 am on 27 July 2016

Tanna is a beautiful epic feature film which shines a light on one of the world's last tribal societies.

Set on Vanuatu's Tanna Island, the film is based on the true story of a young girl who runs away from an arranged marriage to join her lover, triggering a tribal war.

A little over two years ago, the film's lead actors had never even seen a movie, let alone star in one.

And while the two lead actors learned their craft during filming, the other members of the tribe, who feature in the movie, were often just going about their everyday lives.

Co-director Martin Butler spent seven months living with the Yakel tribe and Jimmy Joseph (JJ) Nako, the film's cultural director, was brought up traditionally in the next village to Yakel.

The pair talks to Kathryn Ryan about the film.

Tanna screens in Auckland on July 27 and 28 as part of the NZIFF

Read an edited excerpt from their interview:

KR: Martin – as a documentary maker, how did you get started on this journey?

MB: It was essentially a decision – my co-director Bentley Dean, when we finished our last documentary project, said to me “I’d like to go and live with my two boys, who are two and four-years-old in a very different environment before they start school, so why don’t I move to an exotic traditional society somewhere in the Pacific and while I’m there with my boys and my partner, let’s make a feature film”. Now, neither Bentley nor I had made a feature film before so it was a pretty ambitious idea. But that’s what happened. We did our research, we found the village of Yakel and went to the village and asked the people if they’d be interested in making a film with us.

KR: So it’s one thing to have an idea to make a film like this, but quite another to find a story like this.

MB: When we first went to the village we took along Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes to show to the village because it seemed to us that extremely strong collaborative approach was the way to go for people to, not only act in the film but also create the story was a really good way to work. So that’s what we did and we didn’t shoot for about two to three months when we were first there, we just talked. We spent hours talking to JJ and he’s the sort of cultural director on the film and he was able to tell us everything we needed to know about the culture. So it took a very long time. We didn’t want to impose a story on the village we wanted the story to come from them, that’s’ why we took so long just talking and learning.  And when we did hear the story about the tragedy in 1985 we thought that was a really good way of structuring our narrative to create the story.

KR: At the heart of this is kastom (traditional custom) – JJ could you explain more about tribal life, and the way this village, and the village you lived in, have protected kastom?

JJ: There has been a very strong belief that it’s an inheritance from our elders and also from our ancestral God. As we believe that we must preserve of culture our custom. And we must continue practicing our traditional rituals so that one day we shall benefit from our own culture. We believe that one day there will be a return of the spirit of our ancestral God who will come to fulfill our life of our prophecies if we hold on the customs and culture. So that is how elders are holding on to the practice of our culture rituals and cultural practices and everything that is traditional.

How would you describe how kastom is held and practiced in relation to the leadership of these tribes?

JJ: It is compulsory for everyone to respect the principal’s rules we honour our elders who are known as the spokespeople. And we also have the links between villages and different tribes. If there is a conflict with a tribe, another tribe will come and say something you must respect. And there must be peace is handled in the local community and society.

MB: and I would add that Tanna is really unique in the Pacific and the strength of kastom, the strength of the belief in it. In the mountains of Tanna today, in the 21st Century, all of the political and social decisions are still made in the traditional way. So when you do have a conflict with a neighbouring tribe there is a meeting and ceremony that takes place to solve that issue and it’s the same way it’s been for millennia.

KR: When you first had to explain the film to the people of the tribe what was involved in selling the concept to them and negotiating terms with them?

JJ: After the story was written it became our story. Because everything was real, the story is real and it is part of our culture. So it falls into the state - Selin becomes and younger sister of Wawa, her [real] father becomes the father and the Shaman [in the film] is the actual Shaman and the chief is the [actual] chief.

 MB: There wasn’t actually much of a sales job necessary. When we first got there we sat down and showed them Ten Canoes and said, “we would like to make a film like this with you”. Straight away they said, “can we start tomorrow?” They were really enthusiastic, they loved the idea and so we, in fact, had fabulous collaboration from the very first moment.

KR: Why do you think that is? Why were they wanting to do this?

JJ: This is our story and we feel proud of it so we wanted to share it with the rest of the world right away when the story was completed because that’s our way of life.

MB: My take on it is that that strong adherence to kastom in Yakel is not the result of remoteness, it’s the result of a definite choice. You know the chiefs got together a few decades ago and decided “we will absolutely maintain our custom. We will resist the inroads of missionaries and colonial governments and money,” all of which they knew about and met. They knew about all of them and they were making a very conscious choice to say “no, we don’t want to go that way, we want to stay with our custom. And my view in terms of the film is that they are extremely proud in terms of the custom and the place, and it my view, quite rightly, they’ve got something to say to the rest of the world.