Maoris is one of the Polynesian Island tribe, who traveled to New Zealand some thousand years ago. They later defended themselves from the British invaders. The once fierce warriors lost their lives to many of the long standing wars and now constitute around 12-15 percent of the New Zealand population. Most of the Maoris are reduced to live on the margins of society, ghettoized inside the economic war zones. Lee Tamohari’s 1994 debut feature film “Once Were Warriors” (based on the novel by Alan Duff) was a courageous portrait of these indigenous people, who have lost touch with their tribal past and staggering in the modern world. The tough, muscular looking men of this tribe are still primed for fighting. But, the opponent they have chosen is their own indefensible wife. As in many of the warrior-race or old cultures, equality between men and women is always frowned upon.
Domestic violence is a timeless and universal topic. In “Once were Warriors” there is a lot of background details that might be understood only by a New Zealender, but the subtext will not be lost to outside viewers – the cycle of violence, nurtured by the denial within a family. The film takes place in an urbanized ghetto, situated in South Auckland. The ghetto is filled with barbed wires, noisy traffic, graffiti and bars. The story concentrates on the Heke family, which is held together only by its women, Beth (Rena Owen). Her husband Jake (Temuera Morrison) is a fiery man, an alcoholic and sexually explosive brute. They live in a small house -- allotted by the government – with the four of their five children. The eldest Nig (Julian Arahanga) was initiated into a local gang and has moved out. He hates his father. Boogie, the next one (Taungaroa Emile) runs into trouble with the law and is considered by his father as ‘soft.’
Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell), thirteen-year old daughter of Heke’s is a fanciful story teller. She wants to escape all these abuses. She has the clearest knowledge about her father and hates her mother, for her inability to break loose from him. The other two children – one boy and girl – are aged around 10. At the start of the film, we see Jake Heke getting laid off from the job and spends his day drinking beer with his macho buddies. At first, the couples (Jake and Beth) seem like enjoying a tranquil relationship with moments of genuine affection. But, soon, we encounter the intoxicated personality of Jake. He bashes her head and kicks her at the stomach. The next day, Beth’s face is swollen and she couldn’t make the trip to courthouse with her son. The welfare officers, looking at the situation at the home, places Boogie in a boys’ house. In the reform school, Boogie learns Maori crafts, dances and most importantly, discipline. However, Grace is not lucky like her brother and becomes the victim of Jake’s negligence.
Riwia Brown’s adaptation of the Alan Duff’s novel is said to be more optimistic than the novel. The adapted script has mostly emphasized on the toll taken by Beth and Grace. The script also doesn’t flinch away from the ugliness of the Hekes' home life. There is an observation about the Maori’s ritualized life style, where the women are meant to stand by admiringly and talk only about their men's prowess, while the guys brawl heartily and sing together as if they were gathered around a campfire. However, one could easily observe that there is no subtlety in the narrative. Every point is delivered as an explicit sermon and also the gritty urban details, fails to rise above the melodramatic element.
Director Tamahori has filmed the domestic violence scenes in a powerfully raw manner, which is painful to look at. He also focuses on the clash between Maoris: Beth speaks of marrying Jake -- by taking up with a lower- caste Maori guy, she has shocked her upper-caste Maori family. She later realizes that she has deprived her children of the pride of cultural identity. The camerawork makes use of dreary and drab colors to emphasize that everyone is trapped one way or another. The only serene image in the film is the opening image – a pastoral setting – which later turns out to be a billboard – an illusion.
The film wouldn’t have had the excellent rhythm, if not for the magnetic performances of the lead players. Rena Owen world-weary face and eyes perfectly conveys the ‘I’ve seen it all’ look. She doesn’t portray Beth simply as a victim; she radiates a quality, which confirms that, despite Jake’s cruelty, Beth has fallen for his swagger. However, when her nurturing qualities take control of her, she becomes this grandstanding woman. Mr. Morrison as Jake wildly brings out the machismo of the Maori. He explores the rootlessness of his character and in the end Jake comes off as a defeated warrior – the one who couldn’t even identify his enemies.
“Once Were Warriors” (98 minutes) is not just a harrowing portrait of wife-beaters, but also an optimistic tale of a woman, struggling to claim her own courage. The misery felt here is universal, not a part of this rootless global subculture.
Rated R for pervasive language and strong depiction of domestic abuse, including sexual violence