Home truths in modern Auckland

Issue 

Once Were Warriors
Directed by Lee Tamahori
Reviewed by Melinda Jollie

Once Were Warriors is a powerful and disturbing account of the collapse of a contemporary Maori family through violence, poverty and alcohol, based on the novel by controversial New Zealand author Alan Duff.

The film is set in a poor suburb of Auckland, where old tribal ways have lost any value. Beth is a strong yet long-suffering woman who is torn between her love for her husband, Jake, and the destruction he brings to her and their children.

Her eldest son joins a street gang that wields power through violence; another son is taken away to a welfare home. Her eldest daughter, Grace, is a unique girl — intelligent, sensitive and dreamy despite her surroundings — and embodies Beth's hope for a better future. Yet she is also the most vulnerable, and her spirit is finally shattered.

Jake's actions destroy the family piece by piece until a final tragic incident changes their lives forever.

This story of cultural displacement is universal and explores the loss of identity felt by men and women in modern society all over the world.

Jake, of all the characters, most painfully represents this loss. His world, and that of all the men, is one of violence — towards his family at home or other men at the pub. Both are desperate attempts to claim power and importance, to fill the vacuum which has resulted from the loss of tribal roles and values.

Once, their role was important. They were warriors who defended their people, they were great men. Now they have no purpose but to earn money for their families. They are trapped in a life of urban domesticity, stripped of the values they survived and thrived on and reduced to second-class status, pushed to the dirty outskirts of modern white society.

The film's pivotal figure is Beth, played by a mesmerising Rena Owen. She is a woman of unbreakable spirit who retains her bravery and optimism as she struggles to pull together a decaying family. She is a victim of the violent outcome of her husband's hair-trigger temper. These scenes are particularly disturbing but provide a realistic portrayal of domestic violence quite rare in films.

Beth adds hope to a scene of despair with her fight for something better not just for herself and her children, but for her people.

Once Were Warriors is a harrowing experience. Its willingness to expose a bleaker existence, its painful exploration of distorted love, its despairing account of the devastating effects of modern life are ultimately balanced by a sense of hope and pride. The hope comes from Beth's refusal to give up her desire for a better life for her children and the pride felt for the first time by her children when they are introduced to their ancestral roots, their true identity.

The film is a controversial choice for director Lee Tamahori. Negative depiction of Maoris in New Zealand is deemed politically incorrect. Yet the film exposes a few home truths. It is harshly honest and confronting and defies the romantic image of face paint and traditional dress to expose the real face of the modern Maori.

A fascinating aspect of the film is its similarity to the urban Aboriginal experience. Although the tribal Aborigines were essentially a more peaceful people, this story could just as easily be their story. And, like the Aborigines, the Maori image in film has been tokenistic and stereotyped to date. It would be an invaluable film that portrayed modern Aboriginal life with the same brutal honesty and realism granted the Maoris in Once Were Warriors.

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