Based on an actual 1987 incident, Tanna is an unusual variation on the Romeo and Juliet theme. The action takes place in the remote, traditional village of Yakel on the Melanesian island of Tanna in the small nation of Vanuatu.

Wawa and Dain are in love, but even though they are from the same tribe, they cannot marry because, in order to settle a violent dispute with a neighboring tribe, the Imedin, Yakel’s Chief Charlie has pledged Wawa to an arranged marriage with the son of the Imedin chief. Wawa and Dain are too much in love to submit to tribal custom, so they run away, thus provoking the possibility of all-out war.

Documentary filmmaker Bentley Dean came across this story while spending seven months living on Tanna with his family. He and co-director Martin Butler heard the Yakel men sing a song:

Since the beginning of time

the chiefs have arranged marriage

along the Kastom [custom] roads. But two lovers chose to walk a different path.

Now hear their word: “You saw our love was strong

You saw how we felt

You denied us this life together

We had no choice but to say goodbye.”

Dean and Butler proposed to the Yakel to make a film based on the story. The Yakel had never seen a movie before, so Dean and Butler pulled out a computer and showed them the 2006 film Ten Canoes. In the film Tanna, the actors are not professionals, but Yakel villagers. Indeed, it was the Yakel people who chose Mungau Dain to play the lead male role because they considered him the most handsome man in the village.

For those who consider tribal people “primitive,” I think that those of us in the “civilized” world might learn an important lesson in conflict resolution from the Yakel.

Chief Charlie summarizes one of the messages of the film this way: “The colonial powers – we resisted. The Christians – we resisted. The lure of money – we resisted that also.” But can they resist the power of true love?

By the way, the scenery in Tanna is an example of why the word “breathtaking” was invented.