As the first image of the movie— a beautiful New Zealand landscape— appeared on the screen, I was not sure what to expect from the rest of the film. A few moments later, however, the camera panned out to show the true setting of the story— and it was not the gorgeous fields and mountains often thought of when picturing New Zealand. That image was in that moment just a fantasy, held up on a billboard in contrast to the harsh reality of the dirty, loud city our main characters were to be found in. The opening scenes went on to establish that this was the story of the everyday lives of a Maori family, the Hekes, who were no longer a part of their traditional culture, instead being forced to deal with the urbanization of their world.
At first, it seems that the Heke family could be a happy one, struggling to make ends meet perhaps, but still working together to get by. Elements of the story hold true to that, as we see the closeness of the local Maori community displayed in loud and seemingly enjoyable house parties that involve eating, drinking, and singing. But beneath the surface of the merry making, we soon see a much darker side of things. Jake Heke, who at first glance appears to be a likable, easygoing husband and father, quickly reveals himself to be a manipulative alcoholic that can become extremely abusive and violent when provoked. His wife Beth takes the brunt of his hurtful actions, but their five children are constantly exposed to the violence and left to support each other while they deal with the aftermath of their father’s episodes. While their oldest son leaves to join a gang, their second oldest is sent to a welfare home, and their teenage daughter Grace seeks comfort by writing in her journal as she tries to hold her family together.
The problems escalate as Jake’s drinking binges continue, and his violent outbursts increase. His resentment is soon revealed about his bloodline, as he has come from a long line of slaves while Beth has a family of a much higher social status, whom she has been separated from since their marriage. The conflict of the film, as well as the reason for its title, is seen as it is described how her people once were warriors, but now have fallen to the level of their current problems. The men drink and fight, while the women submit to them as they live together in near poverty. Beth is seen continually trying to stand up for herself and her children, and blaming herself when she fails.
The situation comes to a head when Grace, their beautiful daughter who is loved by the entire community, is raped by an uncle at one of their many alcohol-fueled house parties. She tries to hide it, but eventually cannot take the pain and horror of what has been done to her, and commits suicide. When her family finds out all of what has happened, Jake turns his explosive temper to the man responsible, nearly killing him. Beth, with the support of her kids, finally stands up to Jake and leaves him, moving with them back to her estranged family. The final shot we see is of Jake sitting alone in the parking lot of a bar, realizing what he has done and left to deal with the consequences of his actions.
Once Were Warriors is a film that portrays some very serious issues, and by no means do the filmmakers try to tone them down. The domestic abuse portrayed is violent and ugly, with the alcoholism that is largely behind it never hidden. The difficult circumstances the family is living in are shown in detail, and the racial tension throughout the film is realistic. These things are shown so unapologetically that I was left somewhat stunned, and I believe that is a very important aspect of the movie. It is not meant to be a relaxed, family movie. Once Were Warriors is an intense film that stays with you long after you have watched it, forcing you to think about the issues it confronts and making you want to do something about them.