Oscar Nominated Foreign Film, Tanna, Reveals How Cultural Imperialism Obscures the Gospel

a scene from the movie Tanna

Every year when the list of Oscar nominees is released, I scour through it to find obscure titles tucked away in each category. One group that is always full of gems is “Best Foreign Language Film.” The five movies included are selected from the best of the best that the international film community has to offer. Foreign films offer me something most of the Hollywood-produced ones don’t—a glimpse into a different culture’s worldview. Although I live and serve in Africa, a submission from Australia caught my attention this year.

Tanna, directed by Bentley Dean and Martin Butler and filmed on the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, is a great example of a film that gives us insight into the culture and belief system of a people. The film’s narrative is, at its simplest, a classic Romeo and Juliet tale of forbidden love. However, since the story was conceived and acted by the indigenous people of Yakel, it’s full of insights into their values, fears, and attempts (and failures) to answer the questions of life.

Beauty and Conflict

As the plot moves in a predictable arc following the lovers’ journey, the film lingers on the mundane elements of traditional life on the island. Children singing rhymes and running through the lush jungle, women joking as they make grass skirts in the bubbling creek, grandparents coaching children with words of wisdom as they sit around the fire: these intimate moments are precious and the beauty of the scenes is striking. We come to understand how much these people value community and their cultural traditions—or kastom—which they believe binds together the community through generations.

Foreign films offer me something most of the Hollywood-produced ones don’t—a glimpse into a different culture’s worldview.

A turning point in the film occurs when the village chief and shaman, tired of the incessant killing from tribal conflict, both receive visions telling them “forgiveness is the only way.” They credit the visions to Yahul, the island’s active volcano, which the people worship as “Spirit Mother” and believe to be the source of life. In an attempt to “bury the club” with their enemies, they offer the young Wawa in an arranged marriage to their rivals. But Wawa is already in love with the chief’s grandson Dain. Together the pair rebel and flee into the jungle in pursuit of true love. By the end of the film, all the tribes come to realize that some elements of their culture should be abandoned to foster love in their community and to preserve life.

A Glimpse of Imperialism—When Culture Masks the Gospel

The challenge the characters in Tanna confront—what cultural norms must be abandoned to preserve life—is similar to one Christians ministering cross-culturally often face: What elements of a culture must be abandoned in order to follow Christ? Historically, some well-meaning missionaries have made tragic mistakes by approaching indigenous cultures imperialistically, imposing imported cultural norms, or leniently, opening the door to syncretism, which allows cultural practices to mix with and distort the gospel.

One of last year’s Best Foreign Language Film nominees, Embrace of the Serpent, showed syncretism gone horribly wrong. When a remote Catholic mission’s members lose their priest, the fledgling church morphs what he had taught them into a bizarre, cannibalistic cult that the main character declares to be “the worst of both worlds.” But in Tanna, the Christian message is obscured not by syncretism, but by imperialism.

Tanna references the repressiveness of missionary efforts as a threat to traditional tribal ways. In one scene, the shaman looks out from a mountaintop and, pointing at a church in the distance, says, “Across the island people have left the old ways. They’ve become lost.” Later, when Wawa and Dain are on the run, they consider joining a Christian community made up of converts from their tribe. Despite the loving and welcoming attitude from the Vanuatian believers, the couple is turned off by their foreign attire, unfamiliar song and dance, and bizarre, charismatic practices, saying, “These people freak me out.” It wasn’t the message of Christ they feared—they didn’t even get a chance to hear it—but rather, the prospect of assimilation into a strange, foreign culture.

a scene from the movie Tanna

Albi Nangia in a scene from the Oscar nominated film, Tanna.

A View Toward Redemption

Cross-cultural missionaries must constantly evaluate all they teach to new disciples of Christ to confirm that it is scripturally sound. Christ calls us to teach obedience to all that he commanded (Matt. 28:20), not to impose our own cultural preferences. We need to contextualize appropriately so as to effectively sow the universal gospel in local soil.

In his book Hollywood Worldviews, screenwriter Brian Godawa proposes films are not just for entertainment, but are “a means of communicating worldviews and values with a view toward redemption.” If you watch a film with discernment, you can pick up on philosophical ideas and cultural perspectives with which all films are imbued.

Redemption isn’t found in lives taken selfishly, but in one life laid down sacrificially for all mankind.

Watching Tanna reminded me how wonderfully unique and beautiful the many diverse cultures of the world can be. However, the film also reminded me that it is really just beauty in the ruins—the ruins of what was once paradise and perfection. The characters in the film were on the right track to understanding that love and forgiveness can restore the ruins of culture and preserve life. But the gospel shows us a love much greater than that of Romeo and Juliet. It comes from a source more powerful than any volcano. Redemption isn’t found in lives taken selfishly, but in one life laid down sacrificially for all mankind. Redemption is found in Christ.

Watching films created in different cultural contexts helps me evaluate my own cultural biases and appreciate the diversity of life in our world. It also challenges me to look for ways the gospel answers the questions posed by other worldviews. But for me, experiencing a foreign film isn’t just an exercise in philosophy and theology; it can be downright fun.

Tanna is not rated and has no sexual content and no obscenities. Due to the nature of the people’s traditional garb many of the women are topless, but this is never depicted in a sexually suggestive way. There is one scene of violence where a man is attacked with clubs. A couple’s suicide by poisoning is not shown onscreen, but their bodies are shown afterwards.

Max Power was raised in Sub-Saharan Africa as a missionary kid and returned to the US to study technology, art and film in university. He is now back in Africa serving as a Media Specialist alongside his wife of 15 years and their two kids.

To read further about healthy contextualization of the gospel, check out this article from Zane Pratt, VP of Training at IMB. You can also check out this online course created by the IMB Training team on exploring missions.