Film of the Week: Once Were Warriors

It’d be wrong to call Once Were Warriors a plight of New Zealand’s Maori people. Such a description would not only be demeaning but also trivialize the film’s rich portrayal of complex social systems. The story concerns the daily trials and tribulations of the Heke family in South Auckland, New Zealand. Jake (Temuera Morrison), the patriarch, loses his job but is content with drinking away his unemployment benefits. In act of defiance, his oldest son, Nig (Julian Arahanga) runs away from home and joins a local gang. The second Heke son, Boogie (Taungaroa Emile) lands in a juvenile detention center after a string of petty crimes. The Heke daughter, Grace, (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell) spends her own time writing and taking care of the younger two children. Grace, too, dreams of escaping her family life and South Auckland. In between it all, Beth (Rena Owen), desperately attempts to keep the family together. Jake, who doesn’t care otherwise, beats Beth in bouts of drunken anger. Not that it matters he’s drunk. Even sober, Jake seems to be running from his past. We learn that while Beth is descended from a line of royal Maoris, Jake is descended from slaves and has never been able to escape his perceived brutish identity. This sense of imprisonment also extends to the cast of supporting characters, who, like Bigger Thomas, seem to have been robbed of a better chance at life simply by the color of their skin. The sense of community here is reminiscent of Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles (1961), a film chronicling a group of twenty-something Native Americans living in Los Angeles. Just as in that film, here, the cast is comprised of the working class who find refuge at the bar, and who are, in turn, monitored by the police. Shot by Stuart Dryburgh coming off The Piano (1993), Once Were Warriors sports a grime-tinged look fitting for its downtrodden surroundings. The soundtrack oscillates between growling punk chords and smoother dub and reggae beats. This isn’t a film aiming to garner sympathy or pity but rather by allowing complete insight into the Heke family does sow intimacy with its characters. There are moments of pain but also moments of beauty.

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