Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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IAS Film Notes: Once Were Warriors

The International Arts Society at the U of A began its fall film series tonight with Once Were Warriors. In past semesters, the screenings were free. But now we have to charge in order to cover the fees that film distributors have decided to levy on us because we aren't associated with a class. I'm hoping that everything will work out, but it looks a bit bleak. Maybe we can forge a partnership with The Loft, should the present arrangement prove unworkable.

Kim was supposed to write the film notes for today, but her ongoing illness made it hard for her. So I volunteered to do it in exchange for her agreeing to take one of the films I was slated to write on later in the semester. Because my memory of seeing Once Were Warriors with her is so vivid -- we were at the Grand Lake in Oakland -- it wasn't hard for me to pick up where her preliminary thought process had left off. Still, I ended up having only an hour or so to write over 600 words. It would be one thing to do that in draft mode. Having to produce something reasonably polished in that time is another matter. I was really stressed out.

Luckily, the end result is something I can live with. The notes fall short of my best work -- I was especially pleased with what I wrote about Tampopo last year -- but they are decent enough to share. I also had the painful pleasure of watching Once Were Warriors again. It remains a powerful film, not in spite of its formulaic melodrama, but because it embraces it wholeheartedly. Although it put me in a bad mood -- the impotent male rage in the picture reminded me too much of my obsessive mesquite clipping of a month ago -- I feel better for having undergone the experience a second time.

Once Were Warriors

New Zealand, 1995 – Lee Tamahori, director

The landscape is improbably beautiful, a vast, golden plain sloping up to snow-capped mountains. It’s the New Zealand that tourists rave about, the sort they expect to find, whether transported there by a jet or a movie screen. Once Were Warriors is giving them what they want. And then the camera pans left, revealing this picture-perfect scene to be precisely that: a picture. Suddenly, a deep-focus vista to die for flattens into a billboard that contrasts sharply with the busy concrete spaces of the city. As the gritty details of life on the wrong side of the freeway are fleshed out over the next five minutes, though, the memory of the opening shot’s neatly packaged beauty lingers, a troubling after-image reminding moviegoers of the distinction between ideals and reality. In this regard, it is significant that the billboard is devoid of both words and people. Just as the peaceful wilderness areas of American national parks testify to the removal of the people who once called them home, the New Zealand of tourists’ dreams comes at the expense of the nation’s native population. The landscape seems to speak for itself. But it silences the voices of the nation’s native Maori people in the process. Even the name “New Zealand,” promoted worldwide by a tourist industry that plays a major role in the national economy, marks an erasure, replacing the Maori word for their homeland: Aotearoa.

Although Lee Tamahori’s film, like the Alan Duff novel on which it is based, focuses primarily on the trials of one Maori family consumed by a legacy of violence, the opening sequence remains in the background throughout, a dark blur that looms to remind us that their story is also an allegory. The eldest son of Beth – the astonishing Rena Owen -- and Jake Heke – the equally wonderful Temuera Morrison -- joins a gang that wears leather jackets emblazoned with “Aotearoa” on the back and facial tattoos that hearken back to a time before English-language civilization had conquered the nation’s two islands. The forces that transported the Hekes from a superficially idyllic landscape into a blighted urban neighborhood are the same forces that curdled the pride of the Maori people into barely suppressed self-loathing. While Once Were Warriors is careful to point out that the time before colonization was no paradise – Jake bitterly reminds his wife that her family rejected him because they were descended from nobility and he from slaves – it nevertheless argues that the Maori would be better off returning to their roots than continuing to live a modern life as second-class citizens. The scenes in which the Heke’s wayward pubescent son Boogie gets in touch with his heritage at a home for boys signal a respect for tradition which, despite obvious limitations, is preferable to the alternative. When the forever angry Jake savagely beats a young hoodlum for failing to show adequate respect for his seniors, he is ironically demonstrating that even he, cut off from the past by booze and bitterness at his low origins, would ultimately rather live in a world where young people revere their elders.

Tamahori is not afraid to make a statement in a font as brash as the one used for the titles that accompany the introduction of its main characters. Interviewed in Artforum prior to the film’s 1995 release in the States, he singles out the boldness of John Ford’s famous Westerns as an inspiration. While it might seem curious to make a film about Native Peoples in a genre traditionally devoted to highlighting their savagery, Tamahori recognizes the silver-lining in that sort of stereotyping. For the Maori of Once Were Warriors, the flight from the landscape of the opening shot has brought out the savage in men like Jake Heke, while severing connections to a “savagery” that was a lot more civilized than living on the dole, drinking beer, and taking out one’s impotent rage on women and children.
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