Once Were Warriors, released in 1994, shocked the world with brutal scenes of domestic violence, suicide and rape. As director Lee Tamahori prepares for the release of his first New Zealand film since that break-out hit, Elizabeth Beattie looks back at the New Zealand it depicted and asks, how much has really changed?
Trigger Warning: This piece discusses sexual abuse, domestic violence and suicide.
In October last year, a New Plymouth judge listened calmly as he learned how a mother-of-four had undergone 22 anger management classes seeking to improve her quality of life and break the cycle of violence after leaving an abusive relationship.
Commented Judge Allan Roberts, who heard descriptions of attempted stabbings, violence, and police interventions, “When I read those summaries it seemed like it was an excerpt from Once Were Warriors.”
Earlier in December 2011 an Auckland court had heard how local man Haranui David Selwyn Harris had smashed his partner in the face with a hammer, breaking her teeth. He was also said to have slammed his partner’s leg in a car door and attacked her with a spirit level.
Again parallels were drawn in media headlines – and by Harris’ defence lawyer Quentin Duff, who is the son of Alan Duff, the author of Once Were Warriors.
When a New Zealander who has lived through, grown up in, or witnessed horrific abuse reaches for a benchmark to describe the horror, they use Once Were Warriors.
Alan Duff’s book was published in 1990 and made an immediate impact, winning awards and critical acclaim, while sparking some controversy. But whereas the book arguably connected only with a literary audience, Lee Tamahori‘s cinematic adaption would continue to be talked about, referenced and quoted more than 20 years later.
This was a film that spoke unapologetically about the unspoken. It showed lives bathed in violence, a side of New Zealand that had previously lay buried in statistics and meagre news reportage.
Once Were Warriors‘ opening shot is of a billboard advertisement showing rolling green hills and crystal lakes. The camera pans slowly down to reveal the reality: a community who live or rather, exist, across from a rumbling motorway.
The film, which takes place around the ramshackle Heke household, explores the relationships, vulnerabilities and fragility of a family with limited resources who live in poverty and ever-present violence.
Temuera Morrison is today synonymous with family patriarch Jake the Muss. His seamless transition from charismatic charmer to ferocious monster earned him multiple awards. Morrison made Jake Heke simultaneously likeable and detestable but – most importantly – he made Jake feel believable.
Rena Owen also received widespread recognition for her phenomenal portrayal of Jake’s wife, Beth Heke. Owen, who had originally pursued a career in medicine, moved to London when she was 22. Burying herself in the UK party scene, Owen found herself addicted to heroin, a habit for which she served a seven-month jail sentence.
It was this struggle, combined with her desire to ‘redeem’ herself, that she drew on when playing Beth Heke. At the time of filming, Owen said that Once Were Warriors offered “a certain perspective of New Zealand that a lot of people don’t want to look at.”
And, thanks largely to Owen and Morrison’s performances, that perspective felt authentic. Critics praised the film which received awards both internationally and in New Zealand while positive reviews appeared as far as the New York Times and Variety. Reviews repeatedly highlighted the tour-de-force acting and the sheer brutality of the violence.
It is 25 minutes into the film before we see Jake’s temper. Like artillery fire, it rains down upon his wife. The now-famous line “Cook the man some eggs” is the precursor to Beth’s savage beating.
The violence is still tear inducing. Blood is smeared across door frames, bodies flung to the floor, hair torn, and eyes left swollen and disfigured. The Heke children huddle in each other’s arms for protection, listening to the echoes of their raging father as their mother’s body is disfigured and battered.
Riwia Brown‘s screenplay explores not just the act of violence, but the ongoing dynamics of abuse. Her adaption offers devastating insight into Jake’s cognition of his violence, and of Beth’s perspective of her situation.
Throughout the film, Jake decries his “weak” children. He sees weakness as something to be crushed; Beth, who challenges his authority, is somebody who needs to be controlled, managed, and put in her place.
“I enjoyed writing [the screenplay] because my whole kaupapa for writing is number one with Māori women,” said Brown in a 1994 interview. “This gave me a huge opportunity to make Māori women the heroine of the story and to write about what effects us as Māori – the good, the bad, and the ugly.”
Indeed it is Beth’s complex character that drives the screenplay, delving into her sense of duty and commitment to Jake and her pain at having to sacrifice her own family and identity for one shaped by him.
“[Once Were Warriors] had the courage to explore things that no other movie has had the courage to explore,” said Rena Owen at the time of the its release. At its heart, she said, the film is about “people reclaiming their identity”.
Through Beth and Jake’s oldest daughter, the kind-hearted Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell), we meet Toot, a homeless boy who lives in a broken-down car, sniffing glue and dreaming about driving away from the ugliness of his life.
Grace, as her name suggests, is the embodiment of forgiveness, love, and purity but is soon damaged by her home life, experiencing sexual abuse at the hands of a friend of her father’s.
In a house of violence and upheaval, she has no place to process her rape. She attempts to physically scrub away the experience, to regain a semblance of control over her body. In a daze, reduced to a ghostly spectator, she wanders through the Auckland streets, each lonely footstep weighted with her agony, suffering through her trauma completely alone.
Suicide presents itself to Grace as a better choice then ongoing suffering, and her youth is cut short by her own young hands.
Grace’s death impacts the entire family. As Jake finds comfort swilling beer with his buddies and, unbeknownst to him, his daughter’s rapist, Beth returns to her family’s marae.
It is though Beth’s grief and reconnection with her family, witnessing the power of her culture and history, that she gains a new sense of self-worth. Away from Jake, experiencing her own family’s love, she realises her own identity as a mother and woman.
In the final act Beth takes a triumphant stand against Jake’s violence. Standing in a car park, backed with the strength of her history and identity, her fierce strength of motherhood, her sense of loss and pain, she makes the speech that continues to bring a lump to the throat:
“Our people once were warriors. But unlike you, Jake, they were people with mana, pride; people with spirit. If my spirit can survive living with you for 18 years, Then I can survive anything. Maybe that’s what you taught me.”
It’s the moment that every abused individual should have one day, a moment when their abuser is held accountable for the pain they have caused. Beth’s triumph over her environment remains a bold and powerful cinematic moment.
Beth and Jake’s story is fictional, but the issues explored in this 22-year-old movie are happening all over New Zealand today.
Grace’s experience of sexual assault is echoed in statistics which suggest that one in three girls will be subject to an unwanted sexual experience by the age of 16, as will one in seven boys. One in five New Zealand women will experience sexual assault as an adult.
A 2014 international report found that New Zealand (alongside Australia) had the third-highest reported rate of sexual violence out of the 56 countries studied – and those numbers are only the sexual assaults which are reported.
305,000 New Zealand children, 45,000 more than a year ago, are living in poverty. Those numbers represent a third of all Kiwi children. Living in poverty not only impacts on a child’s later ability to learn, but also makes them more statistically vulnerable to crime, unemployment, and even mental illness and suicide.
Perhaps it is little wonder then that New Zealand’s suicide rates are high. Between June 2014 to May 2015, 564 people took their own lives, with suicide found to be the second highest way young people die in New Zealand.
And our figures for violence are shocking as well. In 2014 Al Jazeera called it an “epidemic”.
In 1994, the year Once Were Warriors was released, the cost of family violence was estimated to be $1 billion, in 2014 that number was estimated to be between $4.1 billion and $7 billion a year.
Currently, more than half of women in New Zealand have experienced domestic violence. In 2014, police responded to 101,981 incidents of domestic violence, which breaks down to be the equivalent of about one incident every five minutes.
Despite these substantial numbers, it is estimated that 80% of domestic violence incidents go unreported. This violence is also not just responsible for the bruised eyes, broken bones, and smashed teeth, this violence is responsible for taking lives too.
Between 2002 and 2012 there was 139 family violence-related homicides. To put that into perspective, almost half of all homicides in New Zealand are related to family violence.
The Kahui twins, two tiny babies whose little bodies were so broken and battered they breathed no more, are two of these statistics; 22-year-old Sophie Elliott, a honours graduate from Dunedin who was stabbed to death by her ex is a statistic; 24-year-old mother Tara Brown, who was beaten to death by her ex-partner, is another.
These are the names of just a few of the New Zealanders who have lost their lives at through domestic violence.
We absorb these deaths in the form of educational resources, news reports, and updates, but to the mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and friends left behind, they are a life-shattering loss.
Beth and Jake’s story is lived again and again, as evidenced by our statistics. Watching Once Were Warriors 22 years on, one can’t help but feel that this movie resonates not just for its cinematic art, or its incredible performances, or its place in New Zealand pop culture history, but for its reflection of all the Beths, Graces, Huatas, Nigs, Pollys, Boogies, and Jakes, who continue to live this story.
This film is not a relic of a shamefully violent time in New Zealand’s history. The issues in this story are current – and they affect real people.
Advertising campaigns like 100% Pure New Zealand still show rolling hills and sparkling lakes, just like that establishing shot in Once Were Warriors. If we’d only glance the other way, if we’d only look closer, we’d see the suffering of families who continue to live just like the Hekes, all around us.
political & climate reportersFind Out More
Children’s Commissioner: State of Care 2015, Ministry of Justice: New Zealand Crime and Safety Survey, Every Child Counts, The Costs of Child poverty for Individuals and Society: A Literary Review, Institute of Primary Care & Public Health, School of Medicine, Rape Prevention Education, Cardiff University: Common mental disorders, neighbourhood income inequality and income deprivation: small-area multilevel analysis, The Lancet: Worldwide prevalence of non-partner sexual violence: a systematic review, Coronial Services of New Zealand: Provisional Suicide Statistics, Are You OK, New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse: Family Violence Deaths, Family Violence Death Review Committee, Once Were Warriors – Where Are They Now, NZOnScreen.
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