Nominated for an ACS Golden Tripod for his work on the feature film Tanna, Bentley Dean speaks about filming the first ever feature film in Vanuatu.
By Bentley Dean.
Tanna is set on a small island in Vanuatu where a young girl from one of the last traditional tribes falls in love with her Chief’s grandson. When an intertribal war escalates, she is unknowingly betrothed as part of a peace deal. The young lovers run away, but are pursued by enemy warriors intent on killing them. They have to choose between their hearts and the future of the tribe, while the villagers must wrestle with preserving their traditional culture and adapting it to the increasing outside demands for individual freedom. It is based on a true story.
I was involved from the beginning, wearing a number of hats including co-director and co-producer with my excellent long-term collaborator Martin Butler. This is a very convenient way to get a gig as a cinematographer. Butler and myself have been working together for eight years making documentaries such as Contact (2009) and First Footprints (2013), not feature films.
There were many appeals to the job. Living with a proudly traditional people for seven months with my wife and two small children was the main one. The folks of Yakel still hunt with bows and arrows and make their clothes and houses entirely from materials gathered in the surrounding jungle. Their days begin with the rising sun and end with a kava ceremony at sunset. It’s a life that has all but disappeared in modern times, so it was a rare opportunity to learn and have a lot of fun.
Another appeal was to make a fictional feature film for the first time. It was an opportunity to push ourselves. We started with next to no money. No money, no story, no feature film experience, working with people who had never seen a feature film let alone act in one. It was quite a start!
We knew that our best chance was to give ourselves lots and lots of time, so equipment and crew had to be minimal. Myself on camera, Butler on sound and my wife, Janita Suter, responsible for everything else. There was no electricity, so we brought a solar panel to charge our batteries and laptops.
I had learned that the Palme D’Or winning Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) was filmed on the Canon C300 and figured if it was good enough for them it was good enough for us. It was cheap enough for us to buy and not worry about rental times, which meant we could build in time for things to go wrong, which of course they did.
It survived volcanic ash, dust storms and deluges of rain and humidity.
It was small enough for me to hold comfortably hand-held and react to the action as it happened in a more documentary style as we anticipated having to be ready to roll to catch the magic. It survived volcanic ash, dust storms and deluges of rain and humidity. A trooper of a camera. The workhorse lens was the Canon 24-105 and a 50mm prime for night scenes on the volcano and around the fire.
We didn’t have a camera department, however for some of the night scenes I would get a someone from the tribe to hold a fleccy and bounce light to simulate fire. Like with everything they became experts really quickly. I did manage to convince Marden Dean (The Infinite Man, Fell) who is my brother and a far better DOP than me, to come and visit. I quickly shoved the camera in his hand and he helped shoot two very memorable scenes.
Our fabulous Editor Tania Nehme came to edit in one of the dirt floor huts for six weeks, which proved invaluable to the story making process.
The look of the film was informed by the organic nature of coming up with the story. Because none of the actors are literate or have had any experience acting, the story and dialogue were developed through workshopping and improvisation on location.
At the start of filming each scene we would ask everyone on location what would happen in real life. Say, for an elaborate peace-making ceremony, they would block out the direction tribes would come from, where they’d sit, the order that chiefs would speak, when they’d sacrifice pigs and exchange kava, what the men would say, and what the women would whisper in the background. Essential lines were hit, but we always left room for the spontaneous performances everyone excelled at.
Because we had discussed the story together over many months, everyone knew the emotional arc of each scene and could move freely within character as if it were happening for real. We began filming rehearsals to get ourselves and the actors used to working with the camera. But at that stage we still didn’t know the look. Would it be locked off and formal, or handheld?
The very first rehearsal was a scene where Chief Charlie tries to convince the men of the tribe to forget revenge and seek peace. Difficult to pull off convincingly. I decided to start wide on legs, but within about seven seconds I felt an irresistible urge to whip off the camera and head straight in handheld. There have only been a couple of times as a cinematographer where I’ve felt goosebumps while filming and this was one.
There have only been a couple of times as a cinematographer where I’ve felt goosebumps while filming and this was one.
Through the lens the performances were extraordinary and I knew in my heart that this was going to be a good film. Amazingly this very first rehearsal is in the final film. We decided there would be no more rehearsals. We’d shoot for real and it would be mostly hand held.
The atmosphere on the shoot was deliberately low key. We teased each other a lot and there was much laughter. It’s our view that this ‘embedded’ and intimate filmmaking style is probably the only way this film could have been made.
Rather than use storyboards, we’d work out how to shoot scenes in the moment. It felt like I was jamming in a band where every musician was talented, but seeking out the same groove.
The beauty about working in Yakel was there was no need for costume or set construction. This is how they exist, a living breathing extraordinary set that we lived in every day. The rest of the island was gorgeous; waterfalls, black and white sand beaches, coral reefs, tropical forest, ash plains and one very active volcano. No erupting lava CGI needed there.
When we needed clubs that wouldn’t damage people when they struck, the men constructed them out of the pith of a palm tree then aged them a bit with smoke and ash to make them look exactly like the real thing. Blood was made out of sap of a jungle plant mixed with a bit of tomato sauce to attract the flies. My wife was often the makeup department and didn’t seem unhappy rubbing coconut oil over ripped male bodies.
My favourite sequence in Tanna is the same as the tribes’. It’s when the lovers rendezvous on top of the volcano. It is shamelessly beautiful, awe-inspiring and very emotional. I challenge anyone to come up with a better rendezvous in cinema! It took three journeys to get that shot. The volcano is their ‘Spirit Mother’ (Yahul) and it was impossible for me to be in her presence and not feel our planet is alive.
The film would not have looked as good as it does, nor have won cinematography awards, if it hadn’t been for the extremely talented work of our colorist CJ Dobson and visual effects person Toby Angwin. I was present throughout the post-production process.
I deliberately underexposed while shooting to better cope with the contrast issues of filming in forests often speckled with bright sun light. This sometimes created hard work for Dobson especially with dark skin, but you wouldn’t know it from the final product. The look is sumptuous but realistic.
The look of the film was informed by the organic nature of coming up with the story.
Angwin did some truly beautiful work such as matting a stunning star time-lapse into our cave, and seamlessly inserting a dead pig that had been whisked off to be eaten before we had finished the scene.
We had promised the tribe that they would be the first in the world to see Tanna, however a few weeks before the scheduled screening, Cyclone Pam devastated Vanuatu and Yakel was not spared. Every house, except a specially built traditional cyclone proof hut, was destroyed. Thankfully no one was killed.
Incredibly they insisted we come to show the film as planned. Yakel was barely recognisable; trees were flattened, crops destroyed, but already about a third of the huts had been rebuilt and they’d buried enough food before the cyclone to keep them going short term. Spirits were high as they erected a screen we had brought – two white sheets sewn together – lashed to a massive banyan tree that had survived the winds. Tribes from all directions came to watch. It was an unforgettable experience.
No one had ever been to a cinema. They were watching their first ever film and it starred them in their own language, telling their own story. There were whoops of joy and laughter, tut-tuts when the lovers did the wrong thing, teenage boys sniggering during the love scenes while young girls at the front shouted at them to keep quiet.
The following day, after much internal discussion, the chiefs gave us what will be our best review, “We know you came here with your equipment and idea to make a film, but we want to inform you that we consider this our film.” They said the film reflected the truth and would help keep Kastom strong (Kastom is a pijin word used to refer to traditional culture, including art and magic). They gave us a chicken and sacred kava root.
It’s easy to work to achieve a ‘directorial vision’, while still imparting your own unique perspective as a Director of Photography, when you are both in the same person. In fact I recommend it to all cinematographers. Haven’t we all thought that the director is a little redundant?
We are grateful to say that Tanna is winning hearts and awards from all around the world but we knew we had really succeeded after we screened the film to the tribe for the first time. We have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams, and we are looking to employ a similar approach to our next project in a yet to be disclosed location.
Multi-Walkley Award-winning Bentley Dean is a cinematographer who studied at the VCA. His film The President Versus David Hicks (2003) won the AFI award and a Logie for Best Documentary, and Contact (2009) won the prestigious Prime Ministers History Prize, another AFI and was nominated in the Feature Documentary Films Competition at Cameraimage.