Monday, April 9, 2012

CANON OF FILM: "ONCE WERE WARRIORS"

ONCE WERE WARRIORS (1993)

Director: Lee Tamahori
Screenplay: Riwia Brown based on the novel by Alan Duff



It is impossible to truly describe the graphic nature of the violence in “Once Were Warriors.” No matter how I try, it will not be enough to prepare you for its impact, and you won’t be able shield yourself from it. I thought about posting a scene from the movie to prepare, but that would almost defeat the purpose (and that became moot when I found the whole movie was posted on youtube, at least for now).  That being said, that’s only one part of a very layered, complex film, in which every little aspect of the movie reveals troubling truths of society both at large and in the narrow world of the characters. “Once Were Warriors” is a New Zealand film, based around a lower-class Maori family (I hope I’m spelling that right) who were the original settlers of New Zealand, you’d equate them to the Aborigines in Australia, but a better modern comparison are the Native Americans. It’s most famous star in America is Lee Tamahori, it’s director, known for some U.S. action blockbusters like “Along Came a Spider,” and the Bond movie “Die Another Day.” Beth (Rena Owen) is a mother of five kids, including two older boys, one of whom is in a street gang of other Maoris who continue the traditional tribal practice of warrior tattoos, and another son who’s been arrested and sent to a rehabilitations camp. Her husband Jakey (Temuera Morrison) is the local barroom brawler, who is capable of picking fights at any time, and he wins them, in one opening scene, he takes out a bigger, stronger man who we had already seen beat up a gang on his own. He is controlled by his fists and his drink and is unable to fully control either. One night, after he holds one of numerous impromptu after hour parties at the house, the kind which keeps all the kids up and leaves them with no food in the morning, he abruptly and unexpectedly beats up his wife and rapes her. The rape is not shown, although it might as well have been. It’d be simple to show her as a saintly heroine who endures for her children, but this movie isn’t that simple. She is also an alcoholic, who likes the parties as much as Jakey, and does in fact truly love him and does know better, but chooses for much of the film to give him the benefit of the doubt. She also isn’t a particularly good mother, letting them have the parties, unable to keep promises because of and in spite of Jake. The real maternal character is her third child Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell) who reads to the youngest children from her notebook when her mother can’t. She has a notebook which has stories that she writes for siblings, and for her friend Dooley (Pete Smith) a homeless drug dealer who lives in a stripped down car under an overpass. She is the protectorate of the family until the family is unable to protect her. There are two scenes where we visit the home of the Maori tribe. One is during a family outing that at least started out good, where Beth describes how she’s descended from Maori royalty and how when she married Jakey, she left the tribe because they wouldn’t accept him being a descendent of Maori slaves. Yes, even in this film, were allowed to understand the domestic abuser, although we do not sympathize. These are some of the most fully-realized and realistic characters of our time. Comparable to the unparented kids in Larry Clark’s “Kids,” or the young drug-running gangsters in “City of God,” and even Charlize Theron’s Oscar-Winning work in “Monster.” This is probably why the violence is more effective, because nothing in this movie feels unreal or wrong, or like moviemaking magic. Even the littlest details of the production design, from the ransacked, unclean house after a party, to a “Lethal Weapon 3” poster in the daughter’s bedroom. I’ve made this film sound like a documentary, it’s not. Owen and Morrison give two of the best performances of all-time, and two that you’ve probably never heard of. It is a socially conscience film; I'd argue the best ever made about domestic violence, but I wouldn’t put it in this Canon unless it was completely engrossing otherwise. Like those I mentioned earlier, they’re movies you watch with a voyeur fascination, like we’re looking in on real people in the real world, with animalistic flaws, naturalistic defects, and inexplicable struggles. You might like to know now, that this film does, eventually end with a triumph, but what it takes for this triumph to get there, might be just as troubling, all too real, and all too preventable.
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