Sunday, 21 February 2010


“We challenge the culture of violence when we ourselves act in the certainty that violence is no longer acceptable, that it's tired and outdated no matter how many cling to it in the stubborn belief that it still works and that it's still valid.” - Gerard Vanderhaar

We watched a very gruelling and confronting film at the weekend. I must admit that we had bought the DVD a couple of years ago but we were putting off seeing it as the jacket notes were rather graphic, however, all of the comments that I had heard about the film were very positive. It is from New Zealand, and is the 1994 Lee Tamahori film, “Once Were Warriors”. It is a film about decadence and loss of pride. About dignity and self-respect, about love and hate, and how all of these things are interwoven with violence and a reduction of the humanity of those who are caught in a web of powerlessness and spiritual degeneracy.

The action takes place in urban Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city. The story concerns itself with the Hekes, a family of Maoris living in a council house and caught between the unrelenting demands of two conflicting cultures. Jake Heke, the father, is a very violent man who frequently beats his wife, Beth, when drunk. This violence stems from his upbringing, the company he keeps and from his feelings of inferiority. Beth is of ‘noble’ lineage and he is of a ‘slave’ background. Jake obviously loves both his wife and his five children, but he is unable to show it in a way they can experience it. The macho man mentality and doing what he thinks is ‘manly’ get in the way of any show of emotion or tenderness towards his family.

The eldest son, Nig, is about to join a street gang and be initiated in the violence that he abhors in his father, while the second eldest son, Boogie, is in trouble with the police and faces court, which will put him into welfare custody. Jake's eldest daughter, Grace, is a sensitive and talented writer who in the youth of her 13 years already shows much promise and wants desperately to get in touch with her family, her culture, her emotions, her blossoming mind. The two youngest children are innocent and vulnerable and they cannot but witness the never-ending cycle of domestic and social violence they are exposed to on a daily basis.

Without spoiling the movie for those of you who haven’t seen it and wish to, all I shall say is that the feeling of tragedy that is ever-present from the film’s beginning finds release in a harrowing climax that has devastating effects for the Heke family and serves as a means of liberation for some of them, while for others it is the spark that sets off an explosion of self-destructive force that damns them eternally.

The film is a challenging one to watch and is full of bloody violence, which is never gratuitous but forms an integral part of the plot. Violence motivates and actualises the social groups that the Heke family lives in. We are introduced to all forms of violence and the film seemingly wishes to state its vocabulary by immersing us in the brutality that drives Jake and his mates, Nig’s gang and the street kids. The touches of tenderness that punctuate the film become all the more poignant and heart-rending when framed by all the cruelty and barbarity that tries to stifle out the humanity in each of the characters. The people that survive this environment must fight with all their might against violence and rise above it until it can no longer touch them.

This is a film you watch only when you are well-prepared for it and you must steel yourself to keep on watching without flinching. Ultimately, the message is one of hope and redemption. The survivors are only the strong, but those strong in spirit. Find it, watch it, it’s worth it!