I like to think I have a somewhat steeled stomach (definitely aided by studying Journalism), but as we traipsed out white-faced from Lee Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors (1994), my class and I were speechless, stuttering, shocked. Dutch courage please!
Once Were Warriors (1994) strikes a masterful balance between beauty and brutality. The film is set in a contemporary New Zealand urban slum and focuses on Māori descendants Beth and Jake “the Muss” Heke and their five children. The film is an assault on the senses – aggressive in visuals, sound and story. The plot is punched forward by the extremely abusive family situation which deteriorates from the dreadful (Jake and Beth’s alcoholism; Jake’s violent outbursts, including beating and effectively raping Beth), to the unbearable (Nig’s gang initiation; “Boogie” being taken into a foster facility; the failure of the family trip to visit him), to the utterly unthinkable (the symbol of ‘good’ and motherly compassion, eldest daughter Gracie, being raped by her “Uncle Bully”; misreading Toot’s intentions in kissing her; Jake attacking her and tearing her precious journal of stories; and Beth finally finding her hanging dead from the tree).
Through the lens of this dysfunctional and destructive family, Lee Tamahori explores the complex interconnectivity of cycles of abuse – how tyrannical cruelty and control in the home is simultaneously likened and linked to cultural colonisation and hegemony. Forms of maltreatment feed off of one another and spawn other destructive outlets, making the vicious cycles of abuse all the more challenging to break. One cannot pinpoint a single ‘cause’ to offer a speedy solution – personal destruction, a volatile family environment, and the oppression of a culture are interdependent. The social stigma and economic struggles faced by the modern Māori people leads to alcohol and drug abuse, which aggravates violence in the home, then further exacerbating substance abuse. The social stigma and inability to find work is thus perpetuated, as is the whole pitiful cycle. Nig and his visually mesmerising tattooed gang represent an extreme reaction to this cultural rejection, but even within this ‘Māori’ clan his initiation involves being savagely beaten, and is thus shown to be yet another destructive cycle.
From the microcosm of the self and family relationships, to the macrocosm of our culture and society, One Were Warriors offers no easy answers and ends in the same jarring way it begins. The opening scene is spectacularly symbolic and telling – the plain of picturesque tranquillity is revealed to be a poster under which reality could not be more dissimilar. Despite the film’s carnal brutality, its message does however seem to be one of hope – that our heritage can ground us and that history offers the most sound lessons on which to base our future – we cannot know who we are unless we know where we come from. “It’s living in the past!” Jake spits in protest to Beth taking Grace ‘home’ (to tribal land she has never lived on) to be buried with ‘her people’ (Beth’s tribal ancestors who disapproved of Jake). Beth calmly reminds him: “It is our past too.” The significance of the title is made apparent in the poignant final scene and exchange between an empowered Beth as she enlightens a degenerating Jake: “Our people once were warriors, but not like you, Jake. They were people with MANA. Pride. People with spirit.” Beth, Nig and Boogie find their warrior spirit and reclaim their MANA through their struggles and loss of Gracie.
The film’s abrupt ending felt like the final blow of an onslaught. I was left gobsmacked, careering between shock and tearful rage. It was a harrowing experience, and my immediate thoughts were to get drunk, smash windows and get a Māori tattoo on my face – so I had a cigarette. I was surprised by the intensity of emotion provoked by this film. The combined brilliance of the script, message, acting and visual representation create an inspirational masterpiece. However, not inspiring in a typical way – there is not a happy ending as such, but rather a hope and potential for change. What is most clearly illustrated is that change is not easy and true strength is earned, hard won, and deeply connected to your sense of self. Boogie gives hope by demonstrating his personal growth and understanding of his core, his roots. His journey is a learning and growing process towards the self – he learns the traditional Hakka (the sacred practices of his people), sings at Grace’s funeral (putting his knowledge of these traditions into practice), assures Toot of her affection for him (demonstrating his maturity), and most heart-warmingly, declines Nig’s offer of a tattoo with a smile: “No thanks. Mine’s on the inside.”