“Tanna” made history this year as the first time Australia is represented in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars. It is also the first to feature non-professional actors speaking in Nauvhal, a language native to the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, many of whom had never even seen a film before, let alone been in one.
“Tanna,” named after the island on which the film is set, is a beautifully rendered tropical “Romeo and Juliet” fable co-directed by Martin Butler and Bentley Dean. It tells the heart-breaking story of star-crossed lovers defying the wishes of their parents and the chiefs of their respective opposing tribes.
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Australia had previously submitted nine films for Academy consideration without success starting in 1996 with “Floating Life,” which was predominantly in Cantonese. That was followed by “La Spagnola” in 2001 (Spanish and Italian), “Ten Canoes” in 2006 (the indigenous Yolngu Matha and Gunwinggu languages), “The Home Song Stories” in 2007 (Cantonese and Mandarin), “Samson and Delilah” in 2009 (the indigenous Walpiri language), “Lore” in 2012 (German), “The Rocket” in 2013 (Lao), “Charlie’s Country” in 2014 (Yolngu Matha) and “Arrows of the Thunder Dragon” in 2015 (Dzongkha/Bhutanese). Only “Samson and Delilah” even managed to make the academy’s shortlist (“The Secret in Their Eyes” from Argentina was the eventual Oscar winner that year).
This year, “Tanna” surprised many by cracking the nine-film shortlist, and then broke through as one of the nominated films edging out heavyweights like “It’s Only the End of the World” from Canada, Best Animated Feature nominee “My Life as a Zucchini” from Switzerland on the shortlist as well as others that didn’t make the shortlist like “Julieta” (Spain), “Elle” (France) and Best Documentary Feature nominee “Fire at Sea” (Italy).
“Tanna” still faces an uphill battle against the likes of favorite “Toni Erdmann” from Germany and “The Salesman” from Iran. According to our exclusive odds, “Tanna” trails the pack in fifth place at 100/1.
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Whether “Tanna” wins or not, the nomination itself is significant because it joins double nominee “Moana” (Best Animated Feature and Best Song) in shining a light on the cultures and stories from the Pacific Islands, which is so fitting in a year where the Academy has so resoundingly attempted to celebrate diversity across the board.
“Tanna” also achieved another milestone by being only the 12th film nominated at the Oscars from a predominantly English-speaking nation or one that lists English as an official language. So far, only films from Canada (French is also an official language) , South Africa (which counts a number of local and European languages as having “special status” according to its constitution) and the United Kingdom have made the cut. And if “Tanna” wins the Oscar later this month, it will be only the third such film to do so (after Canada’s “The Barbarian Invasions” in 2003 and South Africa’s “Tsotsi” in 2005).
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Below are the 12 films from predominantly English speaking nations that have made the cut to date in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars:
“The Decline of the American Empire” (1986): Canada (French)
“Jesus of Montreal” (1989): Canada (French)
“Hedd Wyn” (1993): United Kingdom (Welsh)
“Solomon and Gaenor” (1999): United Kingdom (Welsh)
“The Barbarian Invasions” (2003): Canada (French)
“Yesterday” (2004): South Africa (Zulu)
“Tsotsi” (2005): South Africa (Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, English)
“Water” (2006): Canada (Hindi)
“Incendies” (2010): Canada (French and Arabic)
“Monsieur Lazhar” (2011): Canada (French)
“War Witch” (2012): Canada (French and Lingala)
“Tanna” (2016): Australia (Nauvhal)
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