Chatting with the audience after a preview screening, director Lee Tamahori and producer Robin Scholes noted carefully that Once Were Warriors is “not Alan Duff’s novel”. They said they had felt the need to make it more “positive”, to give it a “happy ending” and see the story “more from the woman’s perspective”. I can’t say I was surprised by these remarks.
Alan Duff’s raw and painful novel was not exactly the favourite reading of literary liberals. It suggested that deprived Maori families are often the vic tims more of a Maori male culture of violence than of any Pakeha racism. To make matters worse for some commentators, it was a Maori writer who said this, not an arrant redneck.
It was never likely that Duff’s black vision would make it intact to the screen. Our film industry is too culturally sensitive for that. So, inevitably, an element of political correctness has been injected into Riwia Brown’s screenplay. The battered wife, Beth Heke (Rena Owen), is now clearly the protagonist. By the film’s latter stage she is answering her brutish husband. Jake (Temuera Morrison), with set speeches that might just as well be advertisements for Maori pride and feminist awareness.
Much play is made of the ancestral wisdom taught by a sensitive welfare officer (George Henare) to the younger Heke boy, when he seems headed down the path to delinquency. Frequently Lee Tamahori cuts from the squalor of the urban pub to the dignity of the rural turangawaewae.
In other words, the film softens Duff’s indictment a little with careful reminders of the positive side of Maoritanga.
Yet having noted all this, I’m still bound to report that much of Once Were Warriors has an undeniable energy and impact. It is, necessarily, as squalid a New Zealand film as we have yet seen transposed from the novel’s Rotorua to a South Auckland ghetto of soiled state houses near noisy motorways, tattooed gangs, graffiti-bombed car shells and booze barns. Violence is frequent and explicit including the rape of a young teenager, suicide, bottle-smashing scrotum-stomping rumbles in the pub, and one sequence of wife-beating, prolonged enough to cow hardened viewers.
And yet, a boozy, sentimental camaraderie sits side-by-side with the violence. It is caught perfectly in the terrific pastiche score of party-stopping songs devised by Murray Grindlay and Murray McNabb.
Forget the preachy lapses. This paradox (family love co-existing with mindless violence) transcends the polemics and gives Once Were Warriors a broader, more affecting significance than its neatly verbalised messages.