Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Once Were Warriors

(New Zealand, 1994)

New Zealand is a fabulously beautiful country. (I’ve never been there, but everybody I’ve ever spoken to who has is rapturous about it.) It’s so beautiful that, in the opening shot here, Lee said “It looks like a painting!” Well … what it was, was a billboard advertising “Beautiful New Zealand!” What’s behind the billboard as we pull back is sort of like The Road Warrior set in the South Bronx. This is where the social dregs of Auckland live, mostly on the dole, mostly problem drinkers, mostly Maori.

I did a little reading on the Maori. They are not at all related to the aboriginals of Australia. In fact, though they were screwed by the white man, like all indigenous populations were during the Era of Expansion, they got off better than most. And, oddly enough, they had been in New Zealand for no longer than 800 years, so you could call them newcomers. They died of white men’s diseases, like all native people did. And there were wars … but they’d been fighting genocidal wars among themselves for centuries. Bottom line, they got a better deal than most native cultures. Many assimilated. The government has been concerned and sensitive (relatively speaking, of course, there were no atrocities to compare with how the Aussie treated their natives), Maori is an official language in NZ. But the bottom line below that bottom line is that Maoris are nevertheless usually the most culturally and economically disadvantaged New Zealanders.

So I expected this to be about the oppression of the Maori culture, and for the villains to be white. But that’s not the story. Though it’s pretty much an all-Maori cast, it’s about domestic violence and alcoholism, and could have happened in any setting … though I have to say, if Kiwis are anything like Aussies, they can be epic drinkers, putting away quart-sized bottles of beer like soda pop.

Jake is a self-loathing (though he’d never admit it, even to himself), self-described “son of a long line of slaves.” Beth is his punching bag of 18 years, from a good traditional Maori family, who blames herself for getting the crap beaten out of her. They have 5 kids. The oldest joins a gang of Maori youth with tattooed faces, any one of whom look as if he could eat three Hell’s Angels for breakfast and not even spit out the bones. We’re really talking The Road Warrior here. Another boy is sent into government custody because the family can’t control him … and it’s not a terrible injustice, nor is it portrayed that way. If I were the judge, I’d have done the same thing, and it may in fact be his only chance at salvation. The saddest character is Grace, who Beth and Jake both fail in the most basic way.

It’s finally a wake-up call for Beth. Maybe things will get better. She seems to be shed of Jake … but cynical me, I really wonder, if she’d loved a guy for 18 years in spite of all the broken bones and knocked-out teeth and black eyes … women so often give the fellow just one more chance … until the guy finally kills her.