Over the past year, we’ve been working closely with coffee-growing and producing enterprise Tanna Coffee on the island of Tanna in the south of Vanuatu. But Tanna Coffee isn’t the only entity drawing attention to the island- last night saw Australian filmmakers Bentley Dean and Martin Butler head to the Oscars with the stars of their nominated film Tanna. The feature film, shot entirely on the island of Tanna, powered by solar batteries, was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. We caught up with Bentley before the ceremony to discover how they found filming a movie on Tanna and how industry can help the people there.
Bentley and Martin headed to Tanna island with one purpose, “to make a film in collaboration with the local community, we had no script ideas, nothing like that”. After being introduced to the Yakel tribe, who live half an hour from Tanna’s main town, the directors made their pitch, “we rocked up there, and they said that they’d never seen a feature film before, so we took with us the Australian film ‘Ten Canoes’ which is similarly developed in close collaboration with an indigenous community. We showed them the film and you could tell that they loved it, we got to the end and they said “can we start tomorrow?””.

“The best thing about the Oscars is experiencing it with everyone that you’ve been with the whole time, particularly the folks from Yakel"

— Bentley Dean (Right), Director of Tanna

Bentley, Martin, their families and the crew lived with the Yakel tribe for seven months, with the first three months devoted entirely to talking, and learning about the local culture, stories and customs. Bentley says, “what makes them [the Yakel tribe] really interesting is that they’ve made a very deliberate decision to not take up aspects of Western culture, they’ve chosen to dress the way in which their ancestors did… they stick true to custom, observe all the traditional ceremonies, have kept their own legal system- its a very unique situation”. Tanna ended up being a film completely improvised and created in close collaboration with the community. The film tells a story of forbidden love which occurred in the tribe in the 1980s.
Being produced in a village with no electricity, Tanna was powered completely by solar panels and solar batteries that were purchased in the island’s main village. Bentley says of the experience that, “as a filmmaker, its what you dream of”. “Its stimulating, and because we built in so much time, we had the time to learn and build friendships, life long friendships. When you’re embedded into a place, your mind does actually start to shift and you start to think of the world in a different way, and I think thats probably been the most lovely thing that come out of it”.

“One of the main reasons that they wanted the film to be made is because they feel that they’ve got a message, something to say to the rest of the world. They’re completely proud of their culture and at any opportunity they love to get in their dress, show it off, and have no problem going into spontaneous dance, say, in the middle of St Marks square”

- Bentley Dean, Director of Tanna

TDi have been working with Tanna Coffee for the last year, working closely with coffee farmers and the management team to create a commercially and financially sustainable enterprise that benefits the community on Tanna. “I think Tanna Coffee is a really great business, everyone says its really great for the island…It’s very important, because its the only cash crop that provides some income for the community” Bentley says. The team at Tanna also say that their film was fuelled by Tanna Coffee! “We drank Tanna Coffee every single morning. Its been grown and processed on the island, so you get to see the very beginnings and then right up to drinking it- its just great coffee”.

TDi's Anthea inspecting coffee plants with Tanna Coffee Director, Terry Adlington on Tanna Island.

Bentley and Martin headed to the Oscars on Sunday with three of the Tanna cast members, adorned in their traditional dress. While the film eventually lost out to Iranian film The Salesman, the achievement of being nominated for an Academy Award is huge for the island. Bentley said before the awards, “I think its a little bit of magic. From never seeing a feature film to being nominated for an Academy Award is quite a journey. Its going to be funny because of course the Yakel tribe won’t know anyone, we’ll all be star struck, but they wouldn’t know Brad Pitt from anyone else. It’ll be a fun time”.
We look forward to continuing our work with the people of Tanna.