Our people once were warriors. They were people with mana, pride. People with spirit.
One of the great dirty secrets of European settlement in the rest of the world is the way that various indigenous peoples were treated, and are still treated to this day. Whether it is the Aborigines of Australia, the First Nations peoples of Canada, or the Dakota people around where I live, native peoples have been pushed aside, dispossessed, and exterminated both by accident and by design. Those that have survived often live lives of squalid desperation and economic hardship.
Perhaps more important than the bleak economic conditions in which they find themselves is the cultural and spiritual deprivation. To lose one's ancestral home and land is bad enough, but to lose one's culture and history is to lose identity itself. All around the world, people who have been cut off from their heritage are struggling to understand themselves and their world after centuries of colonialism.
Facts of the Case
Beth Heke (Rena Owen, Rapa Nui, Soul Assassin) struggles to raise her family in a run-down neighborhood in south Auckland, New Zealand. Her husband Jake (Temuera Morrison, Star Wars: Episode II, The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996)) is only occasionally helpful; the two of them truly love each other, at least when he's not drunk or beating the hell out of her, but he takes no interest in his children whatsoever. Despite their obvious love for each other their conflicts run deep, stemming at least in part from her position as the daughter of a noble line of Maori chiefs and his status as the descendant of slaves. Her family rejected him, and as a result he wants nothing to do with the traditionals or their ways, since they think they are too good for him.
The oldest son, Nig (Julian Arahanga, The Matrix, Broken English), is clearly disgusted by his parents' tawdry lower-class lifestyle and has rejected his family in favor of a militant Maori street gang that emphasizes the old ways and culture. Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell), just turned thirteen, finds refuge in writing stories that incorporate ancient beliefs and legends. Boogie (Taungaroa Emile, Whale Rider) finds himself in trouble with the law and winds up in a boys' home where he learns for the first time of the strength that lies in his warrior heritage.
Their fragile world explodes in tragedy and Beth is forced to choose between the man she loves and the traditions that she has neglected for far too long.
Once Were Warriors is not a film for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. Director Lee Tamahori (Die Another Day, Along Came a Spider, Mulholland Falls) is not at all shy about showing the nasty side of life in the Heke family. It is a world of violence: bar fights, street violence, spousal brutality, rape, and death. Tamahori, like so many other successful modern directors, got his start as a director of television commercials; as a result, his skills and efficiency in selecting exactly the right shots and angles to tell this story are excellent.
Temuera Morrison was known primarily as a dashing soap opera doctor prior to making this film. His performance here is so powerful, so full of extremes and contrasts, that it almost seems like he is channeling Toshiro Mifune. Rena Owen is breathtaking in her role, able to show strength and stand toe-to-toe with Morrison in any scene, no matter how intense. However, the most exciting, dangerous performance comes from Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell as the beautiful, innocent Grace. Kerr-Bell had no previous acting experience, and only auditioned for the film by accident; nevertheless, she carries the heaviest load of any actor in the film and succeeds brilliantly.
New Line appears to recognize the importance of this film, as shown by their attention to the DVD package. The video quality is excellent; I don't know what the source material must have looked like, but the transfer on this disc makes it appear that Tamahori had a much larger budget to work with than was actually the case. There are really no problems to speak of, except for a really badly placed layer change; judging by other recent releases, New Line seems to be unusually careless about layer change placement compared to other studios, and allows this to mar their otherwise excellent work. Audio is presented in a surprising range of options, including DTS, Dolby 5.1, and Dolby 2.0 Surround. The DTS track is nice enough to listen to, but is probably overkill for this movie; sounds are nicely mixed and dialogue comes through well, but there is not an aggressive use of surround channels or a lot of directionality.
The special features on this disc allow Tamahori to explain in some depth how this film got made and what he was trying to accomplish. The behind the scenes featurette runs less than seven minutes and accomplishes very little. On the other hand, Tamahori's various commentaries on the disc were invaluable in gaining a deeper understanding and appreciation of the movie. He gives a feature-length commentary track that focuses primarily on larger cultural issues, rather than the tech-heavy chats that many directors are inclined to give about their early feature efforts. His explanation is also welcome when viewing the gallery of the various traditional Maori tattoos or moko appearing in the film; he is able to explain to the uninitiated the cultural significance of these markings and how they were developed for Once Were Warriors. Two trailers are provided, including the New Zealand theatrical trailer that Tamahori developed himself as well as the more conventional US theatrical trailer. This is the only time I can remember seeing trailers with optional commentary; he explains what he was trying to accomplish with each of them. Rounding out the extra material is a collection of bonus trailers, a DVD-ROM weblink to New Line's site, and DVD credits. The credits deserve mention because they note that a portion of the supplemental material is provided under license from the Criterion Collection.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If there is any weakness in the film, it comes close to the end. There is a scene where it appears that everyone is settling in for a happy ending. The film takes a darker turn, which helps to save it, but before it does it seems that everyone is just a little too happy and relaxed, and that things are working out just a little too smoothly, especially given what has transpired right before. This threatens to undo everything the film has accomplished up to that point, but as noted things do take a turn for the worst right at the end that puts it back on solid ground.
Once Were Warriors takes place in New Zealand among the Maori, but it could just as easily have been Australia, or South Africa, or even Pine Ridge, South Dakota. It is a touching film, but it needs to be more than that; it should serve as an opportunity for all of us to reflect on our complicity in societies that continue to make the lives of indigenous peoples difficult if note impossible.
Not guilty! This is a fine, haunting film from Tamahori and his collaborators, and another excellent DVD from New Line.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Director's Commentary
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