Oscars: How 'Tanna' Helmers Helped Translate Pacific Islanders' Oral Traditions Onto Film

“We sat and talked with the villagers about how we wanted to make a story that comes from them,” explains Martin Butler. “We were merely the conduit for telling their story.”

Standing on the edge of an active volcano, the spiritual mother of the island of Tanna, Australian documentary filmmakers Martin Butler and Bentley Dean never expected to be swapping traditional penis sheaths for red-carpet wear at this year’s Oscar ceremony.

“It’s all surprising given the film’s humble beginnings. Four years ago, the villagers had never seen a film, and Martin and I hadn’t made a feature, so to get to this stage is very special,” says co-director and cinematographer Dean of their film named for the South Pacific island.

Dean’s desire to live within another culture on Tanna, where he’d made a TV documentary in 2004, fueled his and Butler’s idea to make a feature film in the islanders’ native Navhaul language. After being guided to the village of Yakel, they decided their film would highlight the islanders’ desire to turn their backs on a 21st century world and hold on to their customs and traditional way of life.


Tanna’s story of two young lovers who try to defy the laws of arranged marriage was adapted from a traditional song and a real-life story. During a period of seven months, Butler and Dean lived with the villagers of Yakel and, with Butler on sound and Dean on camera, guided them in making the film, earning the trust of people not used to a movie set.

“We are extremely collaborative. We sat and talked with the villagers about how we wanted to make a story that comes from them,” explains Butler. “We were merely the conduit for telling their story.”

The filmmakers also worked closely with the director of Tanna’s cultural center, JJ Nako, who became an important cog in the production wheel, acting as translator, cultural interpreter, guide and, on occasion, a third crewmember.

The process of developing Tanna’s story line and dialogue to the start of filming took several months, involving the telling of tribal stories, workshops, improvisation and rehearsals over many hours and days. When it came time for casting, art imitated life, with many of the villagers replicating their real-life roles onscreen. And in true Hollywood style, the leading man was chosen by the villagers for his good looks.

“We had our preconceived way of filmmaking, so we introduced the villagers to the camera after three months. We chose one complex scene for the first rehearsal, and it’s the first time as a photographer that I got goose bumps,” says Dean. “The nuanced performance in that rehearsal was so good, it ended up in the film.”


Filming was a lengthy process, with shooting confined to one scene per day. In addition to the language issues and working without a set script — as the cast doesn’t read — the remote rainforest location provided many health and logistical challenges. During the seven-month shoot, they included a bout of viral conjunctivitis that blinded Dean for several days, cuts that turned septic, the loss of a computer and camera on the volcano and the gradual powering down of the solar cells the filmmakers brought in to use as a power source. Finishing each day at about 3 p.m. for the obligatory kava ceremony (kava, made from the roots of the plant of the same name, is a beverage with mild narcotic qualities that’s consumed throughout Pacific Ocean cultures) often was a welcome respite.

“It was a big challenge and the most rewarding of our creative lives. Stepping outside the documentary comfort zone was exciting and liberating,” says Butler.

Adds Dean: “Helping the islanders learn to make and love cinema for the very first time through the process we used is just as important as the final product. If you can get a ripper film of it, that’s icing on the cake.”


Vital Stats

Foreign Title: N/A

Distributor: Lightyear Entertainment

Release Date: Sept. 16

Domestic Box Office: $46,654

Notable Festivals: Camerimage, Munich, London, Venice


This story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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