Tanna’s director knows a backlash against Donald Trump could rule out Oscar win

Island bliss: Bentley Dean films Tanna on a Vanuatu volcano. Photo: PHILIPPE PENEL Tribal unity: Martin Butler and Bentley Dean with members of the Yakal tribe (from left) Peter Kowia, Lingai Kowia and Caha Toata.
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Beginnings: Bentley Dean (bottom left) when he started making films with The Race Around The World team in 1997. Photo: Peter Rae

Less than two weeks before the Academy Awards, Australian filmmaker Bentley Dean is wandering around the city looking for a pair of black shoes.

One of the two directors of Tanna, the country’s first nomination for best foreign-language film, already has a good suit from the world premiere at the Venice Film Festival but shoes are proving tricky. “I need help,” he says. “Got any recommendations?”

Dean, who made the touching Vanuatu island romance with Martin Butler, reckons he’s solved another Oscars fashion dilemma. “Instead of a bow tie, I’m thinking of wearing pig’s tusks,” he says.

The filmmakers, who leave for Los Angeles on Saturday, had to miss last week’s Oscar nominees lunch for financial reasons. “It was a little bit too extravagant for us to go there,” Dean says.

But they have big plans for the awards. Just as at the Australian premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival, they will be joined by members of Vanuatu’s Yakel community wearing their tribal dress – feathered head-dresses with grass skirts for women and penis sheaths for men.

“They’re of course keen to wear their traditional dress on the red carpet and the people at the academy have said ‘yes, by all means’,” Dean says. Living in a village without electricity let alone a cinema or television, they won’t know most of the famous faces around them. Dean thinks there’s a chance they might fall asleep if they ceremony gets dull.

There is just one Hollywood star who might ring a bell. The villagers know that Mungau Dain, who stars in Tanna, was once described on the island as “Vanuatu’s Prat Pitt”.

While Tanna had only a small Australian cinema season and has been out on DVD and digital release for a year, the Oscar nomination has triggered new interest in a film shot for just $1 million, including a limited re-release.

“It’s amazing what the Oscar trademark does to a film,” Dean says. “All of a sudden our sales agent says there’s been interest from all over the world. He reckons he’ll sell it to almost every territory, including the ones that have been dithering.”

Considering how Tanna was made, it is remarkable that it has become one of a record 14 Australian nominations at the Oscars on February 27.

Dean and Butler collaborated with the roughly 200 members of one of the South Pacific’s last traditional tribes, who live by the same beliefs and customs they have followed for centuries. They don’t have electricity for their huts, which meant the filmmakers had to import a solar panel to charge their batteries, and they still hunt with bows and arrows.

Because the tribe had never seen a feature film before, Dean and Butler showed them the Aboriginal drama Ten Canoes so they could get a sense of how to bring one of their own stories to the screen. They decided to dramatise a controversial real-life romance that took place in the 1980s, with the cast speaking the tribal language Nauvhal.

During filming, the filmmakers hosted movie nights for the villagers that included their own documentaries and Star Wars. “The most popular was the series of David Attenborough’s Life On Earth,” Dean says. “They just loved it, seeing all of these incredible animals that they’d never seen before.”

If getting to the Oscars was way beyond expectations, the two directors are well aware that a Hollywood backlash against President Donald Trump’s controversial travel ban affecting seven predominantly Muslim nations could mean Tanna has no chance of winning.

“Hollywood does like a cause,” Dean says. “Politics may enter into the decision-making and that’s not such a bad thing. The odds of us winning are very, very low.”

With Oscars voting underway, there has been speculation that academy members could protest about Trump’s immigration policies by voting for two other nominees – Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, given the Iranian director is boycotting the Oscars in protest at the ban, or Hannes Holm’s A Man Called Ove, a Swedish film about a cranky old bigot who is upset when an Iranian woman moves next door.

But Dean, who considers Germany’s critically acclaimed Toni Erdmann another leading contender, believes there are good reasons that members should vote for Tanna.

“I think it exemplifies what the category of foreign-language film is all about, which is essentially to celebrate film in all its forms, wherever it comes from – not just English language,” he says. “In Tanna, you’ve got people who started out in this process not even having seen cinema before – let alone participated or acted in it – and here they are being considered one of the five best foreign-language films of the year and they’re in Hollywood.

“It sums up what’s magic and what’s transformative and what’s brilliant about cinema, in particular world cinema. I haven’t seen the other films but I can’t think of a better example than Tanna that captures the spirit of this category.”

While three Yakel villagers are going to the Oscars – cultural director J.J. Nako and cast members Lingai Kowia and his daughter Selin – Dean says it has sadly proven too difficult for Butler to be joined by his journalist wife Liz Jackson, who revealed her struggle with a form of Parkinson’s disease on Four Corners late last year.

“We knew that we’d have an excellent time and we’d learn a lot [making Tanna] but it’s gone beyond our wildest dreams to end up with a good film and for it to be appreciated with the highest accolades you can get,” Dean says. “To be nominated for an Academy Award is pretty damn good.”Perkins to appear at Jasper Jones sessions

Director Rachel Perkins, author Craig Silvey and a revolving cast of actors are appearing at a batch of Q&A sessions around the country to launch Jasper Jones in coming weeks.

In Sydney, they are at no less than four cinemas next Monday – the Chauvel (with Dan Wyllie), Cremorne Orpheum (with Wyllie and Hugo Weaving), Dendy Newtown (with Weaving, Angourie Rice and Aaron McGrath) and Event Cinemas George Street (with an introduction rather than a Q&A with Weaving, Rice and McGrath).

Opening soon: Aaron McGrath and Levi Miller in Jasper Jones

In Melbourne, there are two sessions next Wednesday – Cinema Nova and Sun Theatre, Yarraville (both with Hugo Weaving and Dan Wyllie). And two sessions the next night – Palace Como and Rivoli Cinemas (both with Wyllie and Angourie Rice).

Perkins has adapted Silvey’s popular novel for the drama, which centres on a bookish 14-year-old (played by Levi Miller from Red Dog: True Blue) and a mixed-race outcast (McGrath) whose lives in a West Australian town are changed by a mystery. It opens on March 2.The Dressmaker and Down Under filmmakers develop follow-ups

New films from the directors of The Dressmaker, Down Under and Jasper Jones are among a slate of new films to get development funding from Screen Australia.

The Dressmaker’s Jocelyn Moorhouse is working on The Variations, a drama about “one of the most potent love triangles in music history” centring on legendary 19th century musicians Clara Schumann, her husband Robert and Johannes Brahms.

Working on a love triangle centring on famous classical musicians: Jocelyn Moorhouse.

Down Under’s Abe Forsythe is developing Little Monsters, a comic horror film “dedicated to all the kindergarten teachers out there who motivate our children to learn, instil them with confidence and stop them from being devoured by zombies”.

And Jasper Jones’ Rachel Perkins is working again with writer Craig Silvey on The Prospector, a western crime mystery about a woman who risks everything to find her missing husband during the West Australian gold rush. Also funded is an adaptation of Leah Purcell’s acclaimed play The Drover’s Wife, which re-imagines Henry Lawson’s classic short story.

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