Jake is an alpha male in a man’s world who engages in domestic violence as easily as he does a pub brawl. By reconnecting with her Maori roots his wife, Beth, finds the strength to break out from the cycle of violence and take her children away from Jake, but not before their teenage daughter, Grace, has taken her own life after being raped by one of Jake’s drinking mates.
In the British Museum in London there is a tall, glass display cabinet that is big enough to walk around and view from both sides. It is filled with artefacts, images and snippets of information, each of which give some additional, sometimes slight, sometimes larger, insight into Maori culture. It is not necessary to have seen this display before viewing Once Were Warriors, but, if you do, your appreciation of the film will have been altered in some way or other. But how much knowledge should a spectator expect to have to bring to a film like this that so clearly focuses on a minority culture about which most of us will have little understanding? How important is it, for example, that we should know that the family name, Heke, has a series of potential meanings that might in some way add to our understanding of the film?1
The ending suggests no matter who we are and where we are coming from, however much or little knowledge we have of Maori culture, there is only one way to interpret this film: this is the story of a woman in an abusive relationship who finds the strength to stand up to a violent man. Beth moves from domestic servitude (the first time we see her she is not only enclosed within wire-mesh fencing but also pushing a supermarket trolley) to the person who asserts as she leaves her husband, ‘From now on I make the decisions for my family’. 2 But should we be more sympathetic, or at least empathetic, towards her husband, Jake. It is, after all, his story that highlights the plight of a certain proportion of Maori males.
There are more than half a million Maori living in New Zealand, more than 80 per cent in urban areas, and most in Auckland and the East Cape. They have become an urbanised minority group, detached from their tribal roots, alienated from mainstream culture and having low economic expectations. Beth accuses Jake of being a ‘slave’ to his fists, to alcohol, and to himself; and, indeed, a higher percentage of the Maori male population than the European male population is in prison, unemployed, drug and alcohol dependent, and/or involved in domestic and street violence. When Jake comes home at the start of the film he has just been made redundant. ‘I got lucky: I got laid off’, he says. ‘I signed up for the dole – it’s only 17 bucks less a week than my wages.’ Toot is a very different character to Jake, a gentle, underage, homeless boy living in an old car, but again the height of his aspiration is to be able to sign on for the dole. (Of course, in the film he has the fairy-tale ending of becoming Beth’s surrogate son, but that only happens in movies.) And, Jake has had an additional handicap: he comes from a long line of slaves.3 The Maori culture that the film suggests ‘saves’ Beth and gives new meaning to life for her son, Boogie, according to Jake, views him as an ‘old black-ass’ and not good enough for Beth, who by contrast was ‘the pride of the tribe’. What the film seems, ultimately, to suggest is something along the lines of ‘once a slave, always a slave’; that Jake’s slave blood will out in just the same way Beth’s chieftain lineage will at some point assert itself.
Theorists from a cultural studies background employ a few key concepts when theorising about texts. First, they suggest texts such as films are part of a complex process of hegemony by which the dominant class gains the consent of everyone else for things to remain as they are in society. Second, they suggest some readers can reject what is on offer as the preferred reading embedded in a text and instead come up with a negotiated reading, or even an oppositional reading. Third, they suggest the meaning of any text is never simple or singular but that every text is polysemic, or open to a range of interpretations. So, what exactly would be the preferred meaning of this text (that is, not necessarily the consciously intended meaning of the author but the meaning in keeping with the current status quo in this society)? In addition to the idea of ‘you are what is in your blood’, would it be that things are changing for Maoris, that men like Jake are being consigned to the past, that women within the Maori community are taking charge of their destiny, that young Maori men like Boogie are reconnecting with their ethnic past, that concepts such as whanau (the extended family) and mana (pride and dignity) are being rediscovered, and that there is, therefore, no need to campaign for further change because the system as it stands, the status quo, is already dealing with the problems? Certainly, it could be argued, Maori land claims have been taken more seriously in the past 30 years, the Maori presence in Parliament has increased, and the importance of rediscovering the Maori language has been accepted. But maybe we would want to negotiate our relationship with the text more carefully. Perhaps, we would wish to accept some elements, such as the importance of the role of women, while rejecting others, such as the concept that a slave past determines the nature of a Maori male’s present. Or, perhaps, we would wish to produce an oppositional reading, to reject this text entirely, seeing it as attempting to lay the blame for social ills with the individual rather than social institutions.4
Because texts are open to a range of interpretations there are still many further possibilities for what readers may get from watching Once Were Warriors. Reception studies often reveal that the viewers of films can take away interpretations theorists might not have immediately thought possible. Jake is shown violently beating his wife and brutally raping her. Later, he stands over his daughter snarling in anger in a posture that echoes the low-angle shot of the dogs to which we cut as he rapes Beth. All of his strength is defeated as he attacks with an axe the tree from which Grace hung herself;5 and he becomes a small figure in the frame as Beth rings her family and says she wants to bring Grace ‘home’ for the funeral, and is similarly diminutive (with his voice correspondingly weak) as Beth walks away from him to a new life. Yet, despite all of this, I suspect, some readers will take away most strongly an image of Jake’s ‘cool’ violence, an endorsement of macho values.
Because we can only make vast generalisations about the divisions within an audience for any film, we can never account for all of the available interpretations. What we can say is that any interpretation will exist in relation to the composite background of the person who brings it into being. The national audience6 for this film might be thought to divide most strongly between those of European/British ethnicity and those from a Maori background; yet, clearly, there is not a white interpretation and a Maori interpretation. Worryingly, identifying such a division in the first place in the audience would seem to accept some implied concept of ethnic purity. And even if we do establish such broad ethnic origins for our audience, how will this affect any individual viewer’s attitude to the film? If, like Beth, you are Maori and are able to trace your ancestry back through tribal chiefs, that is one thing; but what if, like Jake, you know you come from that ‘long line of slaves’? Perhaps, the issue of interpretation should be seen to revolve around cultural identification on the part of the individual rather than actual ancestral lineage. And yet, the very essence of the difficulty for urban Maoris has been seen to be a lack of any solid cultural identification; hence, Nig’s efforts to achieve a ‘patch’, find a new ‘family’, and attain (sub-)cultural identity.
The reality of the Maori experience, that Once Were Warriors because it is a film is able to transcend with its fantasy ending, is the death of Grace. As things stand there is no escape, nothing can come of Grace’s fantasising, like Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet she has to die. As Nig tells her: ‘You’ll have plenty of time to clear up after drunken parties when you get married … It’s just the way things are … It’s just a matter of time.’
1. (1) Hone Heke was a chief of the Ngapuhi who famously defiantly chopped down the flagpole flying the Union Jack at Kororareka four times in the mid-1840s. (2) The heke (or rafters) in the whare (or Maori house) are not only seen as the ribs of the body of the house which is literally seen to be a living being, but also as the representation of the lines of descent from the ancestors. (3) Heke can also mean a migration or journey (and may recall a heke such as that the Ngati Toa chief, Te Rauparaha, took his tribe on in the early 1820s).
2. Female Maori artists have in recent years been keen to depict the strength of women in their work, identifying with a concept of mana wahine, or women’s dignity.
3. Maori culture is built around three social groupings (the iwi, or tribe; the hapu, or sub-tribe; and the whanau, or extended family) and three classes (the chieftain class, commoners and slaves).
4. This reading would suggest not only that the film sees Jake as the problem rather than poverty and unemployment, but also that all it takes for a solution to be found is for Beth to change – that is, that once again the problem is the individual rather than anything else. (Clearly, in one sense seeing an abused woman stand up and embody mana, taking it into herself as her son draws it down into himself while performing his haka, is empowering, but in another it is very Hollywood-like in its unrealistic creation of a fairy-tale resolution.)
5. Unlike Hone Heke (see note 1), Jake is unable to chop down the ‘flagpole’ (like a flagpole, the tree is bare and seemingly unable to bring forth life) from which the metaphorical flag of colonialism has hung. Like the Maori people (and Hone Heke, because the flagpole he attacked was simply put up again and more heavily defended every time he chopped it down), Jake has been defeated by colonialism.
6. The potentially vast international audience would encompass viewers from all sorts of backgrounds and dispositions who for all sorts of reasons might identify with an array of different facets of the film. Beth’s experience of domestic violence, or Jake’s slave background, might echo aspects of a viewer’s own past or might be things about which the viewer would have only second-hand knowledge.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: New Zealand. Production Company: Communicado Productions, New Zealand Film Commission, New Zealand On Air. Director: Lee Tamahori. Screenwriter: Riwia Brown (based on the novel by Alan Duff). Cinematographer: Stuart Dryburgh. Music: Murray Grindlay and Murray McNabb. Cast: Rena Owen (Beth Heke), Temuera Morrison (Jake Heke), Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell (Grace), Julian Arahanga (Nig), Taungaroa Emileb (Boogie), Cliff Curtis (Bully), Pete Smith (Dooley), George Henare (Bennett), Mere Boynton (Mavis), Shannon Williams (Toot).]
Emiel Martens, Once Were Warriors: the Aftermath – the Controversy of OWW in Aotearoa, New Zealand, Amsterdam, Aksant Academic Publishers, 2007.
Jane Smith, ‘Knocked around in New Zealand: Postcolonialism Goes to the Movies’ in Christopher Sharrett (ed.), Mythologies of Violence in Postmodern Media, Detroit, MI, Wayne State University Press, 1999, pp. 381–96.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.