Within the first 15 minutes of the 1994 film, Once Were Warriors, I almost nixed the CD for what appeared to be a film filled with gratuitous violence. But then I asked myself, is it really gratuitous? In the opening scenes we meet the Heke family, teetering on the brink of poverty. The husband, Jake (Temuera Morrison), has just been laid off. As the plot creeps forward we glimpse issues that bedevil all families: sons who can’t or won’t communicate with fathers, parents who exacerbate each other’s weakest links, little kids who are bewildered by everything that happens over the tops of their heads. But added into this mix of family chaos is the disorientation that results from an indigenous people that have been yanked from their native landscape and crammed into urban life and expectations.
Men, who once were warriors, have been stripped of their Maori heritage, their pride, and their masculinity. Their outsider status traps them in unfulfilling menial jobs with no job security. The resulting rage erupts in chaos, drunken binges that veer into sexual violence, and violent brawls. Men strut to hyped up masculinity. Boys work on little else than bodybuilding and martial arts for the natural move into their daddy’s roles. Problems are obliterated with a fast fist, with no consideration as to who is at the other end of the fist—a brawny bro or a wife who is trying to hold her family together. Both men and women confuse drunk for happy.
Rena Owen delivers a riveting performance as Beth, a mother struggling to hold it together, to raise responsible children in a culture that discards outsiders. Her life is a balancing act of passionate love for her husband cast against the violence and dehumanizing treatment that she endures during his drunken rages. If the men are beaten down by lack of agency, women are slaves to their men.
Of the five Heke children, daughter Gracie is the shining star, cleaning up after the parental parties evaporate, comforting younger siblings, and escaping to visit her one and only friend who lives alone in an abandoned car. Gracie, played with quite dignity by Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell, has ambition. She’s not just smart, she’s wise and watchful. She’s the one who will escape the horrors of life in the ghetto.
It takes a rape and a suicide to propel Beth and her family out of the downward spiral and back into the Maori culture that values her as a human being, as a daughter, and as a mother. Could this film have depicted indigenous peoples attempting to assimilate into European-based cultures without the violence? I don’t know much about Maori culture, but what I took away from the film is that the ancient Maori warrior ethic used carefully harnessed savagery in preparation for war against competing tribes. Without careful training and study, the ancestral knowledge that crafted a good warrior is lost and only the violence remains. This film is violent, but not gratuitously so, because it demonstrates the human condition of warriors removed from their culture.