Once Were Warriors

Sep 19, 1995

The global problem of domestic violence destroys families and, in a broader context, locks entire societies into a pathology of pain, distrust, and self-hate. When the basic building blocks of any society—the bonds between mother, father, children—are so grossly violated, that illness seeps into the lives of their neighbors, schoolmates, and co-workers; kinship and humanity become mere mockery.

Once Were Warriors uses the tortured history of wife abuse in the Heke family—a family of working class Maoris in New Zealand—to speak a universal truth about the dark web of despair such intrafamily violence can spin.

In a poor suburb of Auckland, Jake and Beth Heke live a life defined by druken parties, unstable friendships, and confrontations with authorities. Jake, a complex man with a racals’s charm, is weighted down by a quick temper, alchoholism, and an evil streak of male entitlement. Beth’s beauty has been scarred by broken dreams and Jake’s beefy fists. Yet her inner strength and desire to save her family make her the solid center around which Warriors’ story of tragedy and hope is constructed.

The Hekes have two small children, Polly and Huata, and a beautiful adolescent daughter named Grace. Their callow teenaged son Boogie is about to be shipped to reform school by juvenile court. Brooding Nig, the Heke’s oldest offspring, is heavily tattooed as part of a local gang’s complex initiation.

From these threads, the Heke’s tale (based on Alan Duff’s novel) is unflinchingly woven by screenwriter Riwia Brown. Director Lee Tamahori, well-known in his native New Zealand  for his innovative commercials, doesn’t turn his camera away from the uncomfortable moments.  Though shot with bronze filters that compliment the actor’s skin tones, the scenes of Jake’s abuse of Beth will make the most hardened action movie fan flinch. No false heroism, no impersonal  brutality—we care deeply for all the Hekes, even Jake; all their humiliations sting our eyes and  our souls.

Warriors, the highest grossing film of all time in New Zealand, strikes some as “Maoris N the Hood.” It shares, after all, the lower-class ethnic setting, a theme of male bonding, and an examination of dysfunctional families. But none of the ‘90s wave of African-American films—with the exception of Leslie Harris’s Just Another Girl on the IRT—has given us such compelling women characters. Beth, played with ferocious dignity by Rena Owen, and Grace, a dreamy, too-sensitive-for-this-world adolescent played with heartbreaking vulnerability by Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell, give Warriors its warmth and spiritual core.

By film’s end, the Heke’s—all save poor deluded Jake—have begun the process of rescuing themselves from the violence around them. By tapping into the rich legacy of nobility, pride,  and love that is their Maori birthright, Beth and her children gain a sense of spiritual rebirth. Once Were Warriors is harsh and harrowing—but, ultimately hopeful about the human spirit’s capacity for renewal.