Once Were Warriors begins with a placid scene of a beautiful mountain lake, the green foothills not far beyond. Pure serenity. Could be any time, any place. Removed from the hustle and bustle, no pollution to be found. The music is serene as well, befitting the surroundings. But soon, the camera begins to pan left and as it does, you begin to hear the din of city life, maybe a highway nearby. And heavy-metal guitar begins to wail, jangling the nerves. The camera moves to roaring traffic on the highway below, an industrial setting with noise and smoke. You realize that the beautiful surroundings you imagined just moments before were merely an expressway billboard. That moment of serenity is the last we will have until the end of the film.
This film, though also set in New Zealand, will clearly not be another version of The Piano. The time frame is completely different. That was then, this is, well, today. As the film unfolds, you also notice that the casting is different. Rather than addressing the difficulties of white settlers entering a strange and foreign land, the Maori natives appearing only as part of the scenery, this film is about the Maori and what has become of them as a result of the earlier settling. Of course, there is more to it than that, which is what makes Once Were Warriors such an important film, in my estimation.
The film is about Jake and Beth Heke (played by Temuera Morrison and Rena Owen, respectively) who live in a run down part of an urban area. Beth struggles to keep her family together in the face of pernicious violence from Jake that not only threatens her life, but also makes it impossible to keep the respect of teenage children who have their own ideas about life. In fact, abusive is an understatement in this case. She risks losing her children if she doesn't stand up and take control, but she clearly risks her life if she does. To complicate matters, she loves her husband and seems as trapped in their lifestyle as he does, so the choice is not easy or completely up to her. She does the best she thinks she can.
In such a setting, we witness unparalleled pain before reaching the inevitable conclusion, and that process is a wrenching one in the film. After she seems to lose her eldest son to a Maori gang and her next oldest son to the streets and, ultimately, a youth home, Beth suffers a excruciating loss that epitomizes the lot of women in this film. Her daughter, Grace, a sensitive and caring young woman, chooses death over a life that will, inevitably, be much like her mother's. And finally, although it is not soon enough to save Grace, Beth is compelled to act.
Morrison, who reminds me of Robert DeNiro, delivers a powerful portrayal of Jake. He seems simultaneously capable of great charm and sensuality, and, as "Jake the Muss", incredible brutality. He uses both to control Beth, who is played with eminent sensitivity by Owen. Lee Tamahori, in his directorial debut, doesn't let Jake off the hook by being sentimental, and Jake remains both brutal and pathetic.
Once Were Warriors holds a number of important lessons. The first is about domestic violence. According to a note about the film on National Public Radio, the film has been responsible for focusing needed attention on domestic violence in New Zealand. Jake's acts are so reprehensible that sympathy for him is the last thing you'll want to have, even though, at film's end, he remains a victim. Nevertheless, it is Beth and the children who bear Jake's wrath and it is clear that, wherever or whenever it arises, domestic violence cannot be explained or sympathized away. In this way, the film makes a universal appeal to ending such violence. While written about a Maori family in New Zealand, it could as easily be about any family in any corner of the world.
However, an equally compelling story is derived from the movie's title itself. A modern day tale set in the city, Warriors is about Maori who have strayed far from their roots. With all of the depravity of the city, the negative influences of drugs and alcohol and unemployment and violence, we see a people who, once upon a time were fearless warriors, yet have long since given up the battles of old to settle for what is available. We also see lots of victims, from those who are "on the dole" or would like to be, to those like Jake and Beth and their circle of friends, who are caught up in incurable sadness.
Finally, ultimately, the film is a story of redemption. In some ways too late, but Beth nevertheless does finally act. She stands up and takes control. She does what is necessary for survival and we are left with hope.
In some ways, Once Were Warriors is a new conservative anthem, about returning to one's roots, returning to traditional values. It is about standing up, about not merely taking what life dishes out lying down. It is about taking responsibility, regardless of the surroundings or what everyone else is doing. And that is a powerful lesson indeed. While this story is set in New Zealand, it could easily be set in any black neighborhood in this country. The fact is, it could be set anywhere, anywhere people are not taking individual responsibility and are satisfied with blaming "others" for their predicament. Even when those others are, in fact, responsible.
The lesson of Once Were Warriors is that those of us whose ancestors were warriors, those of us who are descended from people who had to struggle against forms of oppression, should once again, take up that struggle and not accept the fate others have decided for us. We should not wait for someone, anyone, to come to our assistance. We should take control ourselves. It is clearly a useful lesson for the Maori. It is equally compelling for African-Americans, for other minorities, for women. The message is not to go back to the good old days, but to bring the values that allowed us to survive slavery and oppression, to bring that struggle, forward for use in our current-days lives. As when Beth's son, asked if he wants to wear the traditional Maori tattooing on his face, responds, "I wear mine on the inside."
Once Were Warriors is the most compelling, and perhaps the best made, film I've seen in years. In any event, don't take my word for it. Go see it for yourself!