Academic journal article Film Criticism

White, Brown or "Coffee"? Revisioning Race in Tamahori's "Once Were Warriors."(1994 Film by New Zealand Filmmaker Lee Tamahori)

Academic journal article Film Criticism

White, Brown or "Coffee"? Revisioning Race in Tamahori's "Once Were Warriors."(1994 Film by New Zealand Filmmaker Lee Tamahori)

Article excerpt

"A little over twenty years ago, I traveled to New Zealand and met a great many sheep, some of them with four legs."

David Denby

American film critic David Denby's quote recalls the parochial New Zealand glimpsed in Katherine Mansfield's stories--already something of an oddity and lost for good somewhere between the early 1970s that Denby refers to and the dawn of the new millenium. The cloying English veneer that seemed to cover every aspect of the country's provincial affairs fascinated both Mansfield, one of New Zealand's most well-known and respected early writers, and in turn Denby, an American film critic who visited on a cultural ambassadorial trip.

Denby speaks of discussing directors with white New Zealanders who gave him "innumerable cups of tea [in their] small Hempstead-style houses" and being escorted by "local cultural officials ... to museums to see Maori art--masks and totems and huge canoes." But, he states, "I never met any Maori" (54). Maori, New Zealand's indigenous people(1), are also noticeably absent in Mansfield's stories, which concern themselves with the white settlers' journey to the new country from Britain, summer picnics, and coming-out balls and social events. That this kind of cultural blandness could have stretched to cover 130 of the 160 years since the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi is in itself uneasy testament to the whitewashing that has formed and shaped the country.

In 1994, Lee Tamahori presented New Zealand with a very different picture of Maori and Pakeha (white New Zealanders) relations in his brutal film, Once Were Warriors. Based on a novel of the same name by Alan Duff and detailing the harrowing domestic doings of an urban Maori family, the film places Maori issues at the forefront of the story. It is also the first movie created entirely by, and starring, Maori: one reviewer referred to the participants as "savvy Maori flies in New Zealand's buttermilk film and TV scene" (Dayphin 66). Rather than relegating these concerns to the background or ignoring them entirely as has been the case in the majority of films focusing on white New Zealanders, Once Were Warriors is eye-opening in its violent rendition of life in New Zealand.

Jake and Beth Heke are the heads of a sprawling family. Nig, the oldest son, undergoes initiation into a violent Maori gang, "Toa," during the film. Grace, the oldest daughter, is a passionate diarist and writer who holds the family together. Boogie, the middle son, already has a string of charges pending against him. The Hekes live in Southeast Auckland, one of the poorest areas of the city, in a state housing tract. Jake drinks with his mates and fights with "any bastard" who will take up with him. When things get really bad or Beth has been too "lippy," he hits Beth instead. The movie shows a system of violence repeating itself, moving from the bar to the bedroom and back again, spanning all levels of the family hierarchy, affecting each member in equal amounts but manifesting itself in a multitude of ways. That this film was so wrenching an event for audiences is testament to the fact that until Once Were Warriors' release, domestic violence was not often the subject of New Zealand films and never the subject of films about Maori themes. In keeping with the social taboos regarding domestic violence--out of sight, out of mind--most films avoided the subject, worried that it would stifle the box office required to sustain homegrown products.

New Zealand has been recognized as a post-colonial nation, separate and distinct from the motherland, since its independence in 1911. However, post-colonialism does not extend to the native people of New Zealand/Aotearoa, who live with the experience of colonialism on a day-to-day basis through the structuring of Maori-Pakeha relations within the country. Once Were Warriors addresses this loss of dignity by painting a disturbing picture, forcing audiences to watch the destructive results of institutionalized racism. …

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