Tanna Is The Real Life Romance Nominated For Australia’s First Foreign-Language Oscar

It's a tale of love and tragedy which some have called a Vanuatu version of Romeo and Juliet. But Tanna, which this week was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, is no ordinary story about star-crossed lovers.

Made by Australian filmmakers Bentley Dean and Martin Butler, the film is based on an actual incident which roiled the island of Tanna in Vanuatu, which it is named after (spoilers ahead).

Tanna is known more for its tourist attractions such as an active volcano, picturesque jungles and beaches, and Prince Philip cults.

But it also has a rich tribal culture, governed by a rigid set of beliefs known as kastom, in which inter-tribal arranged marriages play a crucial role in maintaining social stability.

In the 1980s, a young couple from two different tribes had fallen in love and wanted to marry. But their tribes were vehemently against it. The lovers eventually killed themselves, an act which profoundly shook the community.

"(There was the sense of) 'How could you kill yourself?' There had been no precedent, of people committing suicide for love," Mr Dean tells the BBC.

"So a song came from that. Someone said he received it from their spirits. It's sung in first person, and says, you saw how much we loved each other but refused to let us be together, now we have to say goodbye." It is still sung to this day.

After several similar suicides by those who had not been allowed to marry, the people of Tanna were forced to allow love marriages, and they now make up about half of tribal nuptials.

Acid rain and threat of war

Mr Dean was first inspired by Tanna when he visited the island ten years ago with Mr Butler to make a news documentary. Eventually, with the help of Vanuatu's cultural authorities, he made contact with the Yakel tribe who agreed to host him.

Mr Dean, his wife and two young sons lived with them for seven months in 2014, while Mr Butler flew in periodically from Australia to make the film. JJ Nako, a Tanna local, acted as their translator and cultural interpreter.

The filmmakers arrived without a plot and script, hoping to collaborate with the people of the tribe to tell a story - which they found once they heard of the tribal song.

"(The Yakel) thought it was a story they wanted to tell, it's one that they're intimately involved in. And the important thing they wanted to show was the strength of their kastom," says Mr Dean.

The movie was made with a skeleton film crew using minimal equipment - Mr Dean was the cinematographer, Mr Butler did sound, and Mr Dean's wife Janita managed the production together with villagers, while doubling up as the make-up artist. "She had a hard time of it, slathering coconut oil on ripped male bodies," jokes Mr Dean.

There was no electricity, so they had to bring in solar panels to charge their equipment, and used natural light to film.

The movie's entire cast is made up of non-professional actors - all of them are tribespeople. In fact, none of them had actually watched a movie before the filmmakers arrived.

Casting was initially straightforward - they cast members of the Yakel, with the chief and medicine man playing the same roles in the film. Their lead actor, Mungau Dain, was chosen by the tribe as he was deemed their most handsome man.

Read more here