Once Were Warriors

English Title: Once Were Warriors

Country of Origin: New Zealand

Studio: Communicado

Director: Lee Tamahori

Producer(s): Robin Scholes

Screenplay: Alan Duff, Riwia Brown

Cinematographer: Stuart Dryburgh

Art Director: Shayne Radford

Editor: Michael Horton

Runtime: 90 minutes

Genre: Drama

Language: English

Starring/Cast: Rena Owen, Temuera Morrison

Year: 1994

Volume: Australasian

The Heke family live in a harsh, urban world of gangs, poverty and alcohol-fuelled domestic violence. Beth’s complicity with her husband Jake’s habitual drunkenness alienates her older children, who variously turn to crime, gang subculture and Maori heritage for a sense of identity. The tragedy that follows an all-night party in their home precipitates a crisis which ultimately brings most of the family back together in a positive new way, albeit via widely-varying routes. While showing the devastating effects of alcoholism and poverty in this slice of life, the film also celebrates the vibrancy and style of urban Maori culture, transforming Alan Duff’s bleak novel into a hopeful, if at times shocking film.

Announcing loudly that this will not be a depiction of the postcard-green New Zealand seen in tourist brochures, the opening shot pulls back from one such advertising hoarding to reveal a grimy urban backdrop of highways, fumes, cyclone fences and drug deals. Green has been expunged from the film, which concentrates on traditional Maori blacks and reds, and filtered brown skin tones. Director Lee Tamahori even covered grass with dirt to maintain the look. His direction produces a tight, convincing portrait of a family caught in a pattern of poverty and alcohol abuse, and features some of the most confronting depictions of domestic violence, and its consequences, seen on film.

Though devastating in its tale of family breakdown, the film nonetheless offers hope in its unpromising setting. This is principally achieved by the journey several characters take toward incorporating their Maoritanga (Maori heritage) into urban life. Boogie, Nig and Beth their mother all grow into quite disparate yet effective responses to what it might mean to be a warrior in modern New Zealand. Only Jake’s understanding of what it means to be a warrior is rejected; drunken pub brawls and wife-beating have no role in life of a modern Maori warrior, the film seems to suggest. In bringing an accommodation of Maoritanga into everyday urban life, the film resists romanticizing Maori heritage and the dehistoricization that often goes with it. Maori are not projected back into a timeless past, but rather shown to be part of a developing, adapting and surviving culture.

The film’s soundtrack and mise-en-scène¬ celebrate the special stylistic fusion that can be found in modern Maori/Pasifika life, especially in South Auckland: the so-called capital of Polynesia. This, and the more positive narrative of Riwia Brown’s screenplay highlighting Beth’s story, transforms Duff’s dark novel into a film of enormous resonance that has found great popularity in New Zealand.

Criticisms have been levelled at the film for decontextualizing the circumstances of the family. There is no reference to colonial depredation, other than the fact that the only Pakeha (non-Maori New Zealanders) roles in the film are as agents of the law. The Maori in the film are also concentrated in the working class, unlike the few Pakeha shown. With no exploration of these contexts, the family circumstances could be seen to be all of their own making, unconnected to loss of land, culture and sovereignty associated with colonialism. In keeping with Duff’s overall, deeply conservative vision, salvation only comes from within. No change in colonial relations will deliver the Heke family from self-destruction; they must do it themselves, and in the film’s final hopeful turn, most of them do.

Duff was the sole screenwriter for the less successful 1999 sequel What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? directed by Ian Mune.

Author of this review: Mandy Treagus