TANNA IS MARGARET MEAD’S DREAM COME TRUE
What was it like in the Hawaiian Islands before the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778? There is no better portrayal on the screen than in Tanna, a contemporary Australian movie filmed on the island of Tanna, south of Vanuatu’s capital Port Vila. Tanna was visited by Captain Cook in 1774 and has an active volcano as well as beautiful beaches and an extensive rainforest. When missionaries visited Hawai‛i in the 1820s, they insisted that Native Hawaiians dress in Western-style clothing, as did some natives of Tanna. But tribes still living in the rainforest, as stated in the film, have proudly maintained native dress (grass skirts, and grass penis sheaths), resisted colonization, and resisted Christianity; they maintain what Marx called “primitive communism.” The volcano is revered as a female god, Yahul, similar to Pele in Hawai‛i. Margaret Mead could not have been more pleased with the plot and the setting!
As the story develops, Wawa (played by Marie Wawa) has reached the age when her female body is that of a woman. She has fallen in love with Daim (Mungau Daim), an attractive young man; both are members of the Yakel tribe. However, one day the tribe’s shaman (Albi Nangia ) is murdered by someone from the neighboring Imedin tribe, accusing the former of responsibility for a poor harvest. The murder, in turn, provokes some Yakel to contemplate revenge. Peacekeeping Chief (Chief Mungau Yokay) then mediates, and the two tribes’s elders urge a more peaceful resolution—an exchange of brides. Wawa, the newest one to achieve womanhood, is then selected by the Yakel elder. But she cannot accept her role, even to avoid tribal warfare, because of her burning love for Daim. The elder then banishes Daim, and Wawa joins him in exile. However, after they camp out in territory of yet another tribe, where they are politely told that they cannot make as their new home, they sail to a nearby community of Vanuatu Christians, which welcomes them but where they feel uncomfortable. They then head for the active volcano, which puts on quite a show during the film, carrying poisonous mushrooms. As a result of their willingness to accept suicide rather than conform to the traditional exchange of brides to keep the peace, the two tribes meet again, agree to allow “love marriage,” and conclude the film with a dance that could have been choreographed by Busby Berkeley.
The reason for the “spoiler” is that the reenacted mid-1980s event, which merits a Political Film Society award for best film exposé, is not the main reason why Tanna, directed by Martin Butler and Bentley Dean, is a must-see movie. What is most extraordinary are the Margaret Mead elements—the cultural norms, the environmental magnificence, and the traditional nudity of males and females with only minimal covering of the most private parts. MH