The Liberal Agenda – Once Were Warriors – 25 years on. A Pakeha experience.


There has been a lot of discussion recently on about the 25 year history of Once Were Warriors, that quintessential New Zealand film that went beyond the shaggy dog antics of Goodbye Pork Pie and Came a Hot Friday  or the dystopia of the Quiet Earth or Sleeping Dogs or the pure creepiness of Vigil and The Navigator to enshrine itself as a chapter of our cultural history that to this day still resonates with all the fury of its opening night.

Alan Duff says he wouldn’t make the film again today, and I wonder if that’s because it would be ripped to pieces by Millennial and Gen Y micro aggression policing critics who would argue that it celebrates patriarchal sexist tropes and promotes family violence. I imagine there would be a boycott petition on Action Station and  the Wellington Twitteratti would run a campaign against the NZ Film Commission to deplatform all the actors who participated in the making of it.

What a self censoring progressive time we now live in, Sleeping Dogs today would be remade as Creeping Puppies where the cultural revolution of the Woke slowly eats all the protagonists until they turn on each other for not being intersectionist enough.

I’m saddened that Duff feels this way about Once Were Warriors because for me it was one of the most important films I ever watched, for me it was the first time I had ever seen the level of domestic violence I survived in my early childhood  on screen. It was the first time that my experience was readily identifiable to me and the mental whiplash of that recognition has never left me.

If you are poor and white, there are no excuses for the damage your childhood gives you. The protagonists in the film were all Māori and there was a poetry and romanticised out that led them from the urban slum to the brighter rural future of the childhood Marae, that wasn’t a plot option for those of us who were poor and white, but the ability to see that lived experience on screen was enough to validate us on these Shaky Isles.

I appreciate Once Were Warriors is traditionally seen purely as a Māori experience that was voyeuristically consumed by pakeha, but for those of us pakeha who also shared the domestic violence and untarnished alcoholism of the late 1970s, Once Were Warriors was a validation of the kiwi experience that made us feel more included than a thousand renditions of the national anthem at a thousand Rugby World Cups.

It’s taken me 25 years to say that. Thank you Alan Duff.

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  1. Yes. The film was, to me, a creative ‘Everest’. Alan Duff doesn’t know how talented he is. If he did? He’d write ever more, surely. And I have to say Temuera Morrison was fantastic as Jake. So were the others, of course, but Temuera Morrison gave true depth to Jake the Muss, and brilliant directing by Lee Tamahori.
    And while we gape, agog at the violence and terrible, brutality of the film we should be made aware of the wondrous and beautiful sensitivities of Maori culture. I had an experience during an exhibition at the Auckland Museum once that changed a facet of my life forever. If pakeha were exposed to [that] we’d be a changed land.
    AO/NZ is crying, literally crying out for a cultural and spiritual renaissance. An awakening. A creative and intellectual revolution. [It] would lead to peace.

  2. Alan, sorry to hear of your experiences. I, absolutely, wonder how widespread that was and is still, and about the underlying reasons for it?

  3. I am white and poor. I remember watching that movie not long after it came out. The tears streamed down my face and dripped from my chin as it portrayed my life before my eyes. The only thing it didn’t portray for me was the constant tension I lived while waiting for the next hiding. It took many years to find the courage and self esteem to break away. It was all close to home for too many of us and sadly I think it still is.

  4. I think Lee Tamahori should have taken a more realistic line rather than his flamboyantly imagined gangs. The violence was real — the ‘hidings’. But NZ would have benefited more from a closer rendering of Black Power and the Mongrel Mob.

  5. Twenty five years … just seems like yesterday when in we all piled in to the packed cinema in New Lynn full of bravado and not expecting what we were really about too see.

    Some people left early when the full force of Jakes violence was felt by every body watching , such was its reality and real life experience felt by many westies who could identify with what we all lived with at home , school and in some cases work and the pub.

    Sure it was the Heke’s who were the family in the film but it reached into my pakeha family as i suffered at the hands of a white , violent father who with one blow of his fist send me flying to the other end of the room , picked up and dragged to my bedroom peeing my pants in fear as i was thrown on to my bed for only laughing with my sister at the sound of crunching lettuce at the dinner table.

    Everyone left the at the end of the film in total silence after seeing what a lot of us had experienced in real life just like the Heke’s.

    Finally a movie with kiwi actors about kiwi life that felt so real.

    None of your Hollywood bullshit just real life !

  6. As a pakeha, I appreciate anything that exposes domestic violence, regardless of whatever culture may be portrayed. While I did not receive the type depicted in “Once Were Warriors”, I did cop violence, and it was NOT alcohol-fuelled. So did most of the others at school – it was just the way it was. Sometimes at school, we’d talk about the hidings we got, sometimes we even had a chuckle about it, depending on how it was told. I don’t hold with hitting, although I have come across one or two who were in need of “a clip around the ears”, but the is very much the exception, not the rule. I also know people who appear to be in need of such, but it wouldn’t do anything for them.
    Now, we have the opposite, where parents are too scared to punish, and the kids are taught that in schools, so they get away with whatever they like. There does need to be a penalty for misdeeds, but it does not need to be violence.

    • Really relate to that. My father was kind and not violent, he did like pretty much every other father of his generation employ smacked bum as punishment. As did our mothers. That whole generation fought in the war, if they said jump the only question was how high.

      I do recall making the conscious decision to try and avoid physical punishment with my children, sometimes to an extent that bewildered my father. Where that decision came from? In the 80s we came out of our shells and things like child punishment got air time. It needs more, never less.

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