Ever since Peter Jackson brought Frodo and Bilbo Baggins to the big screen, the New Zealand film industry has often seemed to double as an advert for the national tourist board. However, Kiwi cinema has produced a rich tapestry of life, with films such as The Whale Rider and The Dark Horse showing a side to society not often seen outside of the country. However, nothing has ever topped Once Were Warriors. Lee Tamahori took Alan Duff’s book of the same name and, with the help of Riwia Brown’s screenplay, produced an eye-opening drama about a poor Māori community in South Auckland.
Jake ‘The Muss’ (Temuera Morrison) doesn’t take any shit from anybody. His strong but downtrodden wife Beth (Rena Owen) does her best to keep the family together, but that’s not easy given his alcoholism, gambling and legendary temper. Then there’s the kids. Nig (Julian Arahanga) hates the violence within his house and is looking to join a new family. Then there’s Boogie (Taungaroa Emile), who can’t stay out of trouble with the law and Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell) who dreams of a better life. Along with their two younger siblings, they are all just trying to survive under Jake’s tyrannical rule.
Once Were Warriors is a brutal and febrile peek into a side of New Zealand life that was until then never really documented. Whilst Duff’s gritty and bleak book was popular amongst the white middle-class Kiwis, Tamahori’s film is stylish and slickly edited, allowing it to gain worldwide acclaim. The acting is phenomenal, particularly Temuera Morrison and Rena Owen. The former played against type to deliver one of the most frighteningly realistic performances in modern cinema. Once Were Warriors is a brutal glimpse into a world both alien and familiar.
Once Were Warriors is released on Blu-ray by Second Sight on 19 February.