Venice, Sept 9, 2015 — Once upon a time on the far distant island of Tanna on the
archipelago of Vanuatu lived the indigenous Yakel tribe whose people staunchly
refused to be colonized, Christianized or lured into the white man’s society – until
two Australian anthropologists persuaded the elders to help them make a film
about a Romeo and Juliet love story that took place in the tribe’s rainforest
habitat twenty years ago.
This week the indigenous actors of the film who had never
traveled outside their rain forest habitat, were paraded in grass skirts, head
feathers and penis sheaths at the 72nd Venice Film Festival in front of cameras,
audiences and gawking spectators, scenes reminiscent of those exotic human
trophies explorers in the past dragged back to England from the Americas and the
Antipodes to show off at the royal court and at private clubs.
The film ‘Tanna’ was a success especially the outraged cry of a
young boy clutching his genitals: “Catch her. She’s stolen my penis sheath”. On
Saturday Tanna was awarded the Prize of the Critics, the highest award for a
low budget movie.
For fifteen minutes at the end of the film the troupe from the high
rain forest of Tanna island was cheered by an audience visibly touched by
theirnatural charisma and their surprising talent as amateur actors. A trifle
intimidatedby the photo flashes and the bustling paparazzi the five actors and
actresses stoodin their scant attire on stage after the screening and politely
responded to questions through an interpreter. Not one of them spoke anything but
their native nauvhal.And neither had any of them ever been to a city, flown in an
airplane or ridden an escalator.
Yet, for many of us, the film left a bitter taste, not due to its plot
of the sweet but forbidden and fateful love story between Wawa and Dain or the
cruel way the Italian State-Rai television’s satire ‘Blob’ only showed the bare
buttocks of the Yakel men, nothing else about the film or the actors. No, the real
tragedy was the clash between our modern profit-oriented civilization which
quickly exploited this native novelty for commercial gain and the innocence of
the Yakel who live in a forgotten forest paradise below a fire-spitting volcano in
a society where money is meaningless.
So who made them wander round the Lido in Venice dressed in
their native grass skirts, head feathers and penis sheaths, ridiculed by the ignorant,
laughed at by fools? Was this not a blatant and despicable publicity stunt to drum
While I worked in Brazil as a foreign correspondent many years ago
the country’s most famous anthropologists, Claudio and Orlando Villasboas,
famous for contacting lost Amazon tribes, admitted to me on the eve of their career
each time they had contacted such a lost tribe in painstaking approaches the contact
brought death and destruction to the natives thanks to the white man’s many viruses,
among them the simple cold or the even more devastating chicken pox. Then came
drugs alcohol and prostitution. Within a few years such a tribe had become extinct.
Does it not stand to reason once the two Australian anthropologists,
Bentley Dean and Martin Butler, persuaded the Yakel to make the film the Yakel
were doomed. Given the publicity Tanna is sure to become a new adventure
tripfor camera-toting tourists headed by operators and investors organizing tribal
dances and pig-roasting feasts for paying guests. This tourist invasion is sure to
wear down the Yakel’s traditional ‘Kastom’ system as well as the tribe’s
resistanceto the white man’s ways, a resistance that began the day Captain James
Cook landed on the island more then two hundred years ago.
But let’s leave such sad speculations to posterity. Perhaps the film’
slikely successor ‘Tanna2’ will tell us about that – when it will be all but too late.