Mungau Dain, unlikely Pacific island film star, dies at 24
NEW YORK — Mungau Dain, a tribal villager from Vanuatu who starred in “Tanna,” an Oscar-nominated film about his Pacific island homeland, died on Saturday at a hospital in Port-Vila, the country’s capital. He was 24.
Jimmy Kawiel, a former official at the tourism department in Tafea province, which includes Mr. Dain’s home island, Tanna, confirmed the death. He said the cause was an infection Mr. Dain developed after cutting his leg in Port-Vila on New Year’s Eve, but which was not immediately treated.
Martin Butler, one of the two directors of “Tanna,” said Mr. Dain had traveled to Port-Vila because he was seeking work as a fruit picker in Australia or New Zealand.
“Tanna,” filmed mostly in Mr. Dain’s tribal village and the surrounding jungle, chronicles the fate of two star-crossed lovers who rebel after one is steered into an arranged marriage. The actors were all untrained villagers from the area, and many played themselves.
Butler and his co-director, Bentley Dean, live in Australia and specialize in documentaries. They developed the script for “Tanna” in collaboration with the villagers.
The film’s tragic love story is reminiscent of “Romeo and Juliet.” But Butler said it was loosely based on a true episode from the 1980s in which a couple from Tanna committed suicide because their families did not permit them to marry. Their deaths prompted village elders to agree to accept so-called love marriages.
Mr. Dain’s neighbors nominated him for a leading role in “Tanna” because they considered him the best-looking man in the village, Butler said. But he was not a natural actor.
“The whole process of acting was something that he had not thought about,” Butler said. “I don’t think at that stage he had seen a movie.”
However, he continued, Mr. Dain improved thanks to patience and enthusiasm, and he ultimately turned in “a really brilliant performance.”
“Tanna” won eight awards at international film festivals and was nominated for best foreign-language film at the 2017 Academy Awards. Mr. Dain and other cast members traveled the world to promote it, and Kawiel said he enjoyed his role as the film’s unofficial ambassador.
“This is such a good place, with many buildings, many cars, many people — it’s such a good place,” Dain, smiling broadly and wearing traditional garb, told an interviewer at the 2015 Venice International Film Festival. “But my life here is not as good as my life back at home.”
Tanna, a 45-minute flight from Port-Vila, is one of 83 islands in a remote, impoverished country that has fewer than 300,000 residents. It has roughly one-tenth of the national population and is one of five islands in Tafea, the southernmost of Vanuatu’s six provinces.
Kawiel said Mr. Dain was born in 1994 in Yakel, an unelectrified jungle village with a population of around 200.
Terry Adlington, managing director of the Tanna Coffee Development Co., who has worked with people from Yakel for more than two decades, described Mr. Dain as “a key participant in the everyday life of his village and the community at large.”
Yakel is one of several villages on Tanna with a sharing economy, in which yams, taro, pigs, pig tusks, woven mats, and other items are used as currency, said Henry Dixson, an anthropologist in Auckland, New Zealand, who conducted fieldwork in Vanuatu for a doctoral dissertation.
But it is not untouched by modern life, he added, and some residents own cellphones and other consumer goods.
Mr. Dain’s death was first reported internationally by The Guardian. He is survived by his wife, Nancy, two sons and a daughter. One of his sons, Martin, was named after Butler, the film’s co-director.
His death prompted an outpouring of tributes on social media. The cargo plane carrying his wooden coffin was met at the Tanna airport on Sunday by Vanuatu’s deputy prime minister and other senior officials.
After the coffin was loaded onto a truck on the tarmac, throngs of villagers, some weeping, jumped aboard and hugged it, said TJ Feller, a tourist from San Diego who witnessed the scene.
“Gone Too Soon,” a local newspaper headline read the next day.