The mak ing of
The story behind the film that stole our hearts The film that the called “Unique… soulful… richly cinematic”, that magazine described as “Elegantly edited by Tania Michel Nehme… a stirring to the power of love ” and the reviewed as “a consummate visual
It is a funny sight. Here we are, in the middle of Venice, walking past floating palaces, slow moving gondolas and hordes of tourists snapping away in all directions. The wondrous St Mark’s Square is full of people who are not from Venice, but somehow belong, in the middle of the chaotic, marvelous, ‘Disneyland-esque’, scene that is all around. And right bang in the middle, there are five people from Tanna, dressed in their traditional costume, looking positively dark against the white stone, and the only people who definitely do not belong in this far from nature, somehow dislocated landscape. We are walking across St Mark’s Square to catch the ferry that will take us to Lido Island, where the Venice International Film Festival is taking place. Today is the official screening of the movie, and the cast and crew are
having their shot at the red carpet. The press interviews are one of many photo sessions for these guys, who have been launched into a world that is galaxies away from their universe. Part exhausted, part excited and part scared of all the commotion around them, one can’t help but wonder what they must think of this ‘tin blong waet man’. When we enter the pressroom, where many eager stars have been before, dozens of photographers are waiting around the elevated amphitheatre platform. The cast position themselves on the stage. The photographers shoot at them ‘Look right!’ ‘Look left!’ It is photo frenzy! Selin’s eyes, the little girl in the movie who stole our hearts, are wide open and her smile is going from ear to ear. Dain and Wawa, the main actors, are a little timid, not quite sure of what the fuss is all about, or what exactly is expected of them. Acting humbly, they look shyly but proudly at the cameras, lights flashing all around, the most unlikely movie stars. After the press is satisfied with the many pictures that will make the front page of the newspapers the next day, we walk into the theatre. It is not the first time that the cast has seen the movie on the big screen, it was shown at Yakel village months ago, when it was first completed, just after cyclone Pam hit the islands. It is the first time for me, though, and the rest of the audience in the theatre. The film is beautiful. It is extraordinary. It is breathtaking. It transpires the peaceful, musical rhythm of life in the islands. It is one of those few films that are simply special, no other like it. At the end of the movie, I can’t hold back my tears, I hear others sniffling behind me. The lights come on and the actors receive a standing ovation from the audience. The cast is invited on stage for a round of Q&A. At the end of it, they break into dance, one of the traditional dances from Tanna. Later on, they will do the same, breaking into dance and song, as they walk the mighty International Venice Film Festival red carpet, the same one that Johnny Depp walked a few days before. I notice the reaction of people wherever we go and it dawns on me that what the people of Yakel are spreading in their wake is happiness.
It all started back in 2013 when documentary filmmaker Bentley Dean and his wife Janita Suter, decided that it was time to show their children a world outside the suburbs of Melbourne, where nature was Queen and food did not come in cans and plastic wrappers. Bentley had been to Vanuatu and Tanna back in 2004, while filming for SBS current affairs program Dateline, and shared his thoughts with Janita; what about spending six months with the children at one of the traditional villages in Tanna? In Bentley’s mind, there was also another thought, an idea he had, of making a feature film, that would be acted not by actors, but by the real people that lived in the village and would tell a story, not his story, but their story, in their own language, and following their kastom. Bentley had never made a feature film before but he was no stranger to working with indigenous and traditional societies. In 2009, he and his partner Martin Butler produced and filmed the award winning documentary Contact, documenting the first contact of the last desert people in Australia with ‘modern’ civilization. In later years, together they made ‘First Footprints’ a four part documentary series about Australia’s 50,000 years of Aboriginal history. Martin had spent the previous 25 years producing award-winning documentary reports for Foreign Correspondent, Four Corners and Dateline. “When Bentley first told me his idea of going to live on Tanna and making a feature film, I thought it was an ambitious plan, if not foolhardy. Neither of us had made feature films before. But we had the advantage of owning all the equipment that a two person crew would need for months of filming and had developed a way of filming with traditional people based on mutual respect and personal rapport,” he explained. It was Jacob Kapere, head of Tanna’s Cultural Centre, who suggested Yakel as the village for Martin, Bentley and his family to spend some time in and perhaps, make a movie.
Yakel is one of the few villages left in Vanuatu that have chosen to remain true to their kastom and follow a completely traditional way of life. Their buildings, utensils and clothes are all made from the materials found in the surrounding forest. They hunt in the traditional way, using bows and arrows and spears and tend to their vegetable gardens. In October 2013, with trepidation, Bentley and Martin embarked on the recon mission to see if the village would take them as guests and be happy to be part of this crazy movie project. Having no idea of what Yakel’s position would be, on their first visit, they decided to show the Australian film Ten Canoes, as an introduction to the type of film they would make. The people of Yakel, loved it, totally and completely. Bentley and Martin returned to Australia and Bentley and Janita got the family ready for their big adventure. wo months later, in January 2014, they returned to Tanna, and to Yakel, where they would remain, without leaving the
Moments during filming: Bentley Dean holds the camera. Inside the hut, film editor Tania Nehme with actor Lingai Kowia. In Nambas, Bentley Dean and his sons, Martin Butler, crew and cultural director Jimmy Joseph Nako at end right. Swimming in the river, Bentley, Janita and their sons. Marceline Rofit ‘Selin” and Marie Wawa ‘Wawa’ on the waterfall.
Venice moments. Left: The crew stands on one of Venice’s many bridges. Top right: Lingai Kowia, Marie Wawa, Marceline Rofit, Jimmy Joseph and Mungau Dain. Bellow right: Cast performs a dance on the International Venice Film Festival red carpet while crew watches.
casting,” explains Martin. “The chief of Yakel, Chief Charlie, actually plays the Chief of Yakel. The Medicine Man plays the Medicine Man. Mungau who plays Dain, was the most handsome man in the village and everyone readily agreed that he should play the leading man. Marie, who plays Wawa, took a long time to find but the instant we saw her, we knew she was the one.” And this is how the people from Yakel and neighboring villages, people who had never seen a camera or a movie, who dress in clothes made with grass and are one of few remaining hunter and gathering societies, became actors. In March 2014, Martin, Bentley, Janita, cultural director and translator Jimmy Joseph Nako, aka JJ, and the cast, began filming. Every morning, they would get up, assemble their gear, and proceed to the location for the day. “It soon became clear that my fear of our two and four year olds getting lost in the jungle would not happen,” explains Janita. “It was
joy and personal reward as a film producer. “For me, the most special thing about this film is that it tells the story of a community living under different rules. Nonmaterialistic, able to live in complete harmony with nature, right here and right now. It shows that the way we, ‘modern’ societies, live is not the only way.” For all those involved in the project, more than a commercial venture, it was a project of love, to create a film that had never been done before, documenting the lives and kastom of such a unique society. Every kastom song, dance and practice related in the film are part of the real tradition of Yakel and neighboring villages and tribes. “We are proud of our kastom,” explains JJ, “we want to keep our kastom alive and we would like to share it with the world. This is why we think this film is good,