Once Were Warriors

I saw the brutally violent film “Once Were Warriors” this evening. Made in New Zealand, the film chronicles the life of a Maori woman who leaves her tribal homeland for love. She picks the wrong guy, a violent drunk, who ends up beating her and neglecting their children. The film showcases some traditional Maori ceremonies and philosophies while taking on the issue of domestic abuse and the importance of countering it before it’s too late.

1 thought on “Once Were Warriors

  1. Lee Tamahori, in his directorial debut, brought us a brutal but powerful story drawn from the culture of poverty and alienation enveloping contemporary Maori life. With its complex cultural backdrop and its stark view of this societal cancer, Once were Warriors attains a level at times where it is equally painful and potent. He gives us a rare and important insight into a disenfranchised culture, digging deep down to find their pride and their belonging as a minority in a white dominant society. Though some ideologies may seem beyond us as it was targeted at a primarily Maori audience, the key issue; the brutal cycle of violence and denial within the family; is brought to the forefront in a manner that necessitates no special awareness. By anchoring Once were Warriors in the chaos of a Maori family, Tamahori takes full advantage of an opportunity not only to dissect the forces that lead to domestic violence, but also to focus on the clash between Maori traditions and modern values. Domestic violence such as wife beating, while distasteful, is acceptable behaviour, especially if the woman has the audacity to talk back to her husband. Alcoholism, sexism and family dysfunctionality are frequent features amongst the seemingly confused and misplaced Maori roots.

    Once were Warriors is entwined with ambiguous and complex messages that are portrayed in a derogatory and matter of fact way, but the intentions of the films deeper ideologies may only be held by Lee Tamahori himself. Lee Tamahori’s Maori roots are undeniable in Once were Warriors, asserting personal motives and themes into the production. Tamahori presents the contemporary Maori culture in a gritty, urbanised manner, evoking the residual vibrancy of a threatened culture. However, Tamahoris depiction of the modern Maoris isn’t all doom and gloom, There’s also a realization that not everything is bleak- the good times are really good, and there can be a great deal of genuine warmth in these lives; as seen at the beginning with the obvious charms of Jake catalysing a fiery passion between him and Beth, and the ardent, although perhaps over-melodramatic and Hollywood-esque speech at the closing of the picture.

    The film is an exercise that explores the rootlessness of the Maoris, the politics of how they deal with the present society that knows very little about them and the past that they have little connection to, which is perhaps why Tamahori presented the family as warped and dysfunctional, violence being the centrifugal ruling of the family which may possibly be drawn from Tamahori’s personal experiences. Jake is the central figure as far as the domestic violence goes, but he is a far more complex character than his nickname ‘the muss’ illustrates. The first instance of domestic violence where Beth is beat up for being defiant is an extremely powerful and consequential sequence with the utmost quality of editing and is commonly quoted as the ‘best’ sequence in the film because of its raw portrayal of such an offensive subject. But for me, this scene is pivotal in building the complex web of Jakes character. After this first flare-up, his physical menace is always at the back of our minds and is advantageous in creating constant anxiety for the spectator, as we are always aware from this point of his unrepentant and flippant nature. The worst aspect of Once Were Warriors, if it can be depicted as such, is that it gets harder and harder to watch with every successive viewing. You know what’s about to come next and it hurts; forewarned is not forearmed, you just cannot build a defence barrier against this sort of emotional abuse.

    The intimacy of Once were Warriors is admirable, as im sure Tamahori wasn’t expecting the worldwide success that it later entailed- although it did not receive a nomination for best foreign film at the Oscars 1994; why? The film was made by the people for the people, intended solely for the Maoris of New Zealand and the stark social realism is depicted by the experiences of this focus target audience. The strength of this film is that Tamahori opened new doors into what arguably was a taboo subject, the fact that it was originally meant for the Maori audience meant that he could inject as much shocking social realism into this production in attempt to change the Maoris outlook on life, and he did this by releasing the hidden stark truths through each one of the Heke family; using the Heke’s as a microcosm of the culture itself, even offering hope for them to get out of the desolate environment that they are in. Perhaps this highlights why it did not receive the western recognition that it deserved- were we not ready for it at the time? It seems debatable that it was ignored for convenience, and suggests an indication of Hollywood’s authority and arguable repression over foreign cinema.

    The fact that Once were Warriors was made in New Zealand has dictated the way that the film was certified. If the film was made in Hollywood, perhaps the more graphic scenes such as Jake beating Beth may have been cut, either to attain a lower certification to produce a higher revenue or because it may be seen as disrespectful to the western world. But my judgment is that these scenes afford a deeper level of meaning to the film and the rust- yellow filter utilised on the camera produced a dusty enigma. If this were created in Hollywood, would it have fashioned the ‘gloss’ that it spins on much of its pride- driven, Die Hard-esque violence?

    Some might say that the relatively low budget given to Once were Warriors has proved beneficial for the furore of the production as it contrived a unique photographic style, giving it a raw edge that exhumed the realism that it strived to convey. Also, the musical score by Murray McNabb is evocative, working in parallel with the drab, dreary colours suffused through the camerawork. The limitations put on the camera techniques were advantageous as it meant there were only limited blockbuster style crane shots. This assists the audience in forming a relationship with the characters as you are constantly in the midst of the film; there are no lavish techniques or special effects that distance you from the overriding ideologies and messages of the film, throwing you into a whirlwind of questioned morals and forcing you to sway your empathy from character to character. However, the low budget of the film doesn’t mean that Tamahori pays no attention to detail. The awareness displayed in the mise-en-scene is particularly poignant, with props such as beer bottles constantly around the house, entailing the consistent theme of alcoholism that is dominant throughout.

    The values of the Maori culture may seem immoral to the western world, but who are we to question others morals? Once were Warriors is inspirational not only culturally for all minorities around the world but for the Majority, inviting them to take a step back and consider what they may be involved in, and appreciate it. Ultimately, this film was made to illustrate message and meaning and rarely do you find products that not only influence a race but actually change it.

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