Bentley Dean and Martin Butler, renowned for their AFI/AACTA-nominated collaborations on historical documentaries First Footprints and Contact, have turned their attention to narrative feature filmmaking with the Melanesia-shot romantic drama Tanna.
“It came out of wanting to live somewhere with my young family that wasn’t the suburbs of Melbourne and seeing if we could work up a story from there,” says Dean. “I lived in this very traditional village in Tanna for six months with the idea of collaborating on a film with the people there, but we didn’t know what the story was. We thought we might just discover that in the process.”
Tanna concerns two star-crossed teenage lovers who go against traditional arranged marriage tribal traditions and flee to a Christian village in an attempt to make a life for themselves.
“It’s quite universal and quite shocking the way the story resembles Romeo and Juliet,” says Dean. “I stumbled across it at a tribal meeting where there was a gathering to resolve a marriage dispute. A couple had decided they were sticking with one another, which goes against the tradition of arranged marriages. It took a day to be resolved. However, I was later told that in the mid-1980s a couple had committed suicide rather than comply with the chief’s wishes.
“I was immediately attracted to that story, and even after 30 years it was still quite raw in the village and they sang me a story from the perspective of those lovers. Songs in their culture are the biggest motivations for change because they come from the spirits. I learnt that from that point on the tribes agreed to allow love marriages for the sake of future generations. I thought this was a fantastic story of 'love conquers all' and had real resonance for a Western audience.”
Master and Commander scribe John Collee was brought on board as a co-writer to weave the narrative into a conventional structure, add dialogue and crank up some of the action sequences.
"Bentley and Martin are fantastic doco makers and I thought their idea for the film was really intriguing," says Collee. "When they invited me over to Tanna, I was, of course, instantly hooked. The landscape is breathtaking: coral reefs, rainforest and an active volcano. It's a really interesting way of working because the tribe know the story intimately. The emotions which it evokes of war and peace, love and death, are painfully real.
"Bentley found a great child actor who observes the unfolding love story. That 'peeping tom' device in the story gave us a chance to make the film erotic without being explicit, and without demanding two much acting from the actors. I think it’s going to be really groundbreaking."
Dean employed the local Melanesians for their natural storytelling ability, and held a screening of Rolf de Heer’s AFI-winning drama Ten Canoes for reference. “They hadn’t seen films before so we needed to show them an example of the sort of thing we were interested in doing,” says Dean.
Having appointed de Heer's regular editor Tania Nehme (The King is Dead!, Charlie’s Country), the filmmakers had unique access to de Heer, who became an unofficial consultant on Tanna. "He gave bits of advice every now and again and was very supportive," says Dean, who cites de Heer and early Russian filmmaking pioneer and cinema verite theorist Dziga Vertov (The Man with the Movie Camera) as major influences. “I’m influenced by anyone who blurs that distinction between documentary and fiction.”
Tanna will have a cinematic release in late 2015.
*Editor's note: The title of this film was previously 'Taboo'.