Saturday, 19 September 2009

Review: Once Were Warriors (1994)

Title: Once Were Warriors

Rated: 18
Release Date: 8th December, 1994

Director: Lee Tamahori
Starring: Rena Owen, Temuera Morrison, Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell, Julian Arahanga.

Rating: 4/5

Plot: A family descended from Maori warriors is bedeviled by a violent father and the societal problems of being treated as outcasts.


Review: The plot summary above is taken from the IMDb and, in my opinion, doesn't summarise this film very accurately.

Once Were Warriors tells the story of an urban Maori family, the Hekes, struggling to make ends meet while living apart from Western culture in their close knit community. While Beth comes from an old-fashioned and traditional family, her huband Jake is an example of what some Maori have become. They have a family of five children: 13-year-old Grace, the eldest daughter daydreams about running away from her community to live a better life and reads and writes stories to her two youngest siblings; Mark 'Boogie' has been taken away from his family after a series of minor criminal offences; and Nig moves out to join a street gang who also embrace their Maori culture through a series of facial tattoos.

The first time I saw this film was a few years ago in college. In the UK, we barely learn about any other country's history, so I was not very aware of the Polynesian history in Australia and didn't truly understand the significance of this film.

Five years later, I've rewatched it and, having learned a bit more about the history, see this in a different light.

The film's a perfect example of how some of the Polynesian people of today have turned out. Statistics show that the Maori have, on average, fewer assets, live in higher deprivated areas, and are more liable to negative social outcomes.

Jake, the patriarch of the family, uses his fists to get his way, and Beth, in spite of her obvious inner strength, always succumbs to them. Having lost his job, he spends most of the time at locacl bars with his friends, getting drunk, and inviting them back to the house for all-night parties that his children are subjected to. While Beth enjoys joining in with her husband, she eventually begins to see how their lifestyle is taking its toll on their children as the family starts to fall apart.

This film touches on domestic violence, alcoholism, rape, crime, and old Maori warrior culture. In spite of its graphic and violent content, it has a clear and tragic message. You could almost set the family's lifestyle to how a British family lived nearly 60 or so years ago - the domineering man ordering around the domesticated wife. But the worst part about it is that its set in modern times and you know that this is a culture that still exists and is very real. All around the world there are families like this but Once Were Warriors shows us what happens to the minorities in our countries who were cast out a couple of hundred years ago and are now on the poverty line.

It's the fact that the cast of actors aren't 'Hollywood' pros that make the performances so gritty and realistic. We believe that this is a family, and we believe that this is their lifestyle. Temuera Morrison is terrifying as Jake, and I challenge anyone to look this man in the eyes after watching this film. Rena Owen shines as her character gradually finds the strength of her Maori background to stand up for what she believes in.Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell is the heart of the film: Grace observes her family with an almost outsider's point of view, acknowledging that this isn't the way she wants to be living, but due to fear of her father is forced into silence.

While the two older brothers of the family seperate themselves from the home and explore more about their background (Boogie is kept in a state foster home where he is ruthlessly taught about his heritage), I would have liked to have seen it captured in greater detail. While the film is only 100 minutes long, we are only shown glimpses of what Nig and Boogie are uncovering and, as a result, aren't given the full lesson on Maori history, but are stuck in the modern Maori world with Jake and his friends.

Regardless of this, I do think this film's a must-see. It's very graphic with some horrifying scenes of violence but it's also a lesson in other cultures.  


Sarbear said...

THis sounds like a powerful movie -- was it a Sundance Film? It sounds like one. I'm going to the Sundance Film Festival this year -- 20 min. away!

Ryan said...

I am not familiar with this movie. Thank you so much for bringing it to my attention.

I have an award for you as well:

Ceri said...

Sarbear - It was apparently shown in the Venice and Toronto film festivals. I don't think it was a huge release at all because it was a small budget Kiwi film :)

Ryan - That's cool - I definitely recommend it. And thank you so much for the award. :-D

Nikola said...

Come by my blog and pick up your award!

Andreea said...

I have never heard of this before. Great review!

Ceri said...

Nikola - Thank you so much :-D

Andreea - Watch it! (As long as you can tolerate violence in films)