Magazine article American Cinematographer

Trouble in Paradise

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Trouble in Paradise

Article excerpt

There has never been a version of the archetypal "doomed lovers" story quite like the one told in Tanna. A core crew of two - cinematographer/co-director Bentley Dean and location sound recordist/codirector Martin Butler - shot the movie in Yakel, a traditional village high in the hills of Tanna, an island in the Vanuatu archipelago. Performed entirely in the little-known Nauvhal language, Tanna is Vanuatu's first feature. The picture has won numerous accolades, including the Best Cinematography Award and Audience Award for Best Feature Film at the 2015 Venice Film Festival's International Film Critics' Week.

Dean believes that "among the myriad Pacific Islands, Tanna is probably the strongest in following Kastom [Melanesian traditional culture], A few tribes, such as the villagers of Yakel, still hunt with bows and arrows and make their traditional clothes and houses entirely from materials gathered in the surrounding jungle. Their days begin with the rising sun and end with a kava ceremony at sunset. It's a way of life that has all but disappeared in modern times."

Only 25x12 miles, Tanna bursts at the seams with dense rainforest; both black- and white-sand beaches; brilliant corals; pristine, iridescent water; and the stark grey ash plain of an active volcano, the 1,184' Mt. Yasur. Dean and Butler had great locations - all they needed were a script and a cast. "Our pitch to the villagers was to collaborate on a story that would come from and be acted by them," Dean recalls. "We showed the whole tribe Rolf De Heer's Ten Canoes [AC March '07] on our solarcharged laptop to demonstrate the type of film Martin and I wanted to make - and indeed what a film was, because few had seen one before."

The plot of Tanna originated from a real-life dispute in the 1980s over an arranged marriage. "Star-crossed lovers, intra- and inter-tribal disputes, challenges to the status quo of tradition-we were fascinated by all these powerful and dramatic themes," Dean says. The details of the story were then plotted out over the next two months with Butler, script editor Janita Suter and the inhabitants of Yakel.

High-spirited Wawa (Marie Wawa) is in love with Dain (Mungau Dain) - the son of Village Chief Charlie (Chief Charlie Kahla) - but their nuptial plans are thwarted when a tribal decision is made to pair Wawa with someone else. Due to an attack on the Yakel shaman (Albi Nangia) by men from the Imedin tribe, the peacekeeping chief (Chief Mungau Yokay) has arranged for an end to hostilities if Wawa marries an Imedin man. Determined to be together, Wawa and Dain flee their tribe.

Dean and Butler's combined experience on both short- and long-form documentaries ideally positioned them to tackle such an unusual project. While shooting their feature-length production Contact (2009)-about first contad with a group of women and children from the indigenous Martu tribe of Australia's Great Sandy Desert - and the four-part First Footprints, Dean and Butler "established a successful way of filming traditional people with respect, patience and personal rapport," Dean explains. "It's the best way for a film such as Tanna to be made. It also helps that Martin and I are a very tight unit - both coproducing and co-directing. With Martin on sound and me on camera, we respond to whatever is happening in front of us quickly and organically."

As principal photography was scheduled to last at least six months, and in fad lasted seven, purchasing a camera was a better option than renting. "We had no significant budget to begin with," Dean says, "so we needed a camera that was affordable and could produce results for the big screen. When I learned that the gorgeous-looking, Palme d'Or-winning Blue Is the Warmest Color was shot on the Canon C300,1 knew it was the camera for us. It was small enough for comfortable handholding and allowed me to move quickly to capture any spontaneous adion by the villagers."

Recording in Canon Log, the C300 was mostly handheld throughout the produdion, with the workhorse lens being a Canon EF L-series 24-105mm f4 L IS USM. …

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