MUNGAU Dain, who starred in the Oscar-nominated Australian-Vanuatu film Tanna – his first acting role – has died in Port Vila following an untreated infection in his leg.
The film’s co-directors, Bentley Dean and Martin Butler, and script editor Janita Suter, spoke to Guardian Australia after conversations with people on the island about Dain’s death.
Dain was in his late 20s when he died a few days ago, and left behind his wife, Nancy, and two young children.
Tanna was the first feature film shot entirely in Vanuatu. Filmed in collaboration with the Yakel people of Tanna, it tells the forbidden love story of a young girl, Wawa (Marie Wawa), who falls for the grandson of her chief, Dain (Mungau Dain).
The movie, which won two major prizes at Venice film festival in 2015 and was nominated for the best foreign language Oscar, was acclaimed for its Romeo and Juliet-style storytelling, its picturesque cinematography and its cast: first-time actors pulled from the real-life village in which it is set.
Dain was put forward as the lead by the village chief, chosen largely for his good looks. “They called him Vanuatu’s Brad Pitt,” Suter said.
Dean and Suter, who are married, moved to Vanuatu from Australia with their children, and lived there for seven months to make the film. Along with the rest of the crew, they were welcomed into the village and Dain’s family.
“[The village] really wanted to share their culture, not just with us but with the world,” Suter said. “That was a process that unfolded on many levels, including very personal ones.”
In order to promote the film, Dain and other cast members got the chance to travel outside of Vanuatu – to Venice, Los Angeles and Australia, where Dain stayed in Dean and Suter’s home. “Our young children got on really well with him; he carried them on all sorts of adventures – up waterfalls and the like. He was just a very gentle soul. Mischievous,” Dean said.
Dean remembers arriving to the apartment they were staying at Venice, for the Venice film festival.
“I said, ‘OK, well let’s get ready and go [to the premiere],’ and they zipped upstairs – Dain in the lead – and within minutes I could hear this thumping sound on the floor above us. The chandeliers were shaking!” he said.
“I went upstairs, and Dain had changed out of his regular clothes and was in full custom gear, in namba [penis sheath] and bare-chested, feathers in his hair, stamping on the floor. They were doing a custom dance, they were raring to go. They had no shyness [about their culture], they were extremely proud … it was just wonderful.”
Tanna was Mungau Dain’s first experience as an actor. He has been trying to arrange a fruit-picking job in Australia or New Zealand before he died.
Dean said the last time he went back to Vanuatu, a year ago, Dain had asked him: “OK, what’s the next film?” Eager to continue acting, Dain had been talking with people from an acting group in Port Vila.
Co-director Butler said after Dain won the part on Tanna, it took him some time to learn the ropes. “I don’t think he’d even seen a movie before. Let’s say he was a little rusty,” Butler says. “It took time to explain to him what was going on, how to approach acting, having the confidence to just give it ago. But he was tremendously keen and actively worked on it … and by the end, I thought he was great.”
Dain named his son Martin, after the director – a tradition in the village, which Butler said now also boasted a baby named Bentley and another named Janita. Butler described Dain as a ‘deep family man – quite soft, gentle, not a macho type’, and said while the village had an extended family structure that supported all members, the impact on his young family would be ‘total devastation’.
Butler also spoke of the tragedy of the death itself, so easily preventable with fast action, more education and easy access to the right medicine.
“Had Dain got to the hospital a few days earlier, got some antibiotics in him, almost certainly he would have survived … He’s now dead,” he said. “There are people in the [Vanuatu medical] system who are trying to get the knowledge out as best as they can, but there’s just no resources for it … but it could just save lives.”
When Dain died in Port Vila, he had been attempting, with his close friend and Tanna co-star Lingai Kowai, to arrange a fruit-picking job in Australia or New Zealand.
“Dain and Lingai loved travelling. They loved experiencing and seeing the wider world,” Butler said. “What a tragedy that this young, gorgeous bloke dies merely because he didn’t get antibiotics into him quick enough.”