PRINT February 1995


LEE TAMAHORI IS KING in New Zealand for directing the Anchor Butter TV ads. Standing against advertising’s usual divorce from reality, Tamahori dared to put divorce into a commercial—the hugely popular Anchor minisoap, which follows the day-to-day business of a broken family. Tamahori’s first feature film, Once Were Warriors, also confronts social reality—and proves that it sells. A low-budget film, in New Zealand Once Were Warriors has reached Jurassic box office, topped only by the dinosaur movie itself.

The movie is based on a novel that was itself a controversial bestseller: the book’s Maori author, Alan Duff, has been called an Uncle Tom for insisting that the distress suffered by many urban Maori is their own responsibility, no longer to be blamed on Pakeha oppression. Once Were Warriors is the first film to muscle in on the mutable culture of urban Maori. Whether or not you agree with its picture, it has become a common reference when contemporary New Zealanders talk about their society.

Once Were Warriors opens with a picture-postcard New Zealand of mountains and river. Then the camera sucks back: what we’re seeing is just an advertising billboard in the city, in a low-rent Maori neighborhood. In this staunch part of town, Jake Heke (Temeura Morrison) talks the talk and walks the walk. Pumped up and vain, he likes to massage his ego and exercise his elbow by drinking with his mates—likes to party, sing along, get a bit wet-eyed. Of course the booze fuels his temper. He’s known as Jake the Muss because he can belt the crap out of any comer. He’ll even smash his wife around if she gets lippy. It’s after one particularly savage beating that Beth, played with guts and wile by Rena Owen, sees that things have got to change. Terrorized by Jake and damned by the poverty of his values and booze-bam culture, Beth recognizes that her five children are in danger. The oldest boy, Nig (Julian “Sonny” Arahanga), in his mid-to-late teens, has accepted brutal initiation into the local gang; Boogie (Taungaroa Emile), the middle son, has drifted into petty crime. Only 13-year-old Grace (Mamengaroa Kerr-Bell), surrogate mother to the two youngest children, seems unspoiled by her environment. A budding writer, she spins stories that draw intuitively on Maori mythology and legend. But Grace is raped by a member of her extended family, and hangs herself. It is this suicide that finally moves Beth to return to her marae, traditional meeting place of her people. Inspired by the power of her culture, Beth finds the strength to defy her husband and to draw her remaining children around her.

Although passed over for competition at Cannes, Once Were Warriors has garnered a host of international awards, including Best Film at the Montreal and Durban film festivals and Best First Feature at Venice. Now Warriors is revved up for international release. Tamahori relishes the idea that the film the king-makers at Cannes wouldn’t take is the film that everyone’s talking about, the absolute must-see.

I talked to Tamahori in his Auckland office. The conversation was interrupted by phone calls from Hollywood, hammering out his next deal. Ngati Porou or East Coast Maori on his father’s side, Pakeha on his mother’s, Lee Tamahori, as they say, has made it.

Stuart McKenzie

LEE TAMAHORI: Filmmaking is a smoke-and-mirrors game. It’s not a great high-concept art. Sometimes it can achieve that, but most of the time it’s sheer action—two hours of fabulous escapism in a dark room.

STUART McKENZIE: Does Once Were Warriors hit that art thing?

LT: I’d say it’s a well-told story. The best art in the world is simple. I’ve always admired the energy and control of American action directors, that incredibly simple shot-by-shot narrative construction. It will always be easy for me to make an American film, where everything is slave to the story. I’m a believer in performance driving a film rather than technique.

SM: Your TV commercials have a lot of spin because they hold drama above technical bravado.

LT: Commercials have been my apprenticeship to direct drama. Agencies send me all these performance scripts. Suits me fine.

SM: Like your Trustbank ad, which took Best Commercial at this year’s New Zealand Film and TV Awards.

LT: That Maori one. Yeah, I love that one. They brought me a script about two Samoan guys lying in long grass at the side of the road talking. And I said, Look, why don’t we make them Maori, and for God’s sake don’t fuck with the vernacular—don’t clean up their dialogue. Because Maori have a particular way of speaking English, and all over the country Maori will recognize that, and so will a helluva lot of other New Zealanders because it’s honest.

SM: In Once Were Warriors, the overwhelming impression is of honesty, grittiness. It advertises itself as being true to life. I’m fascinated by art that hammers home this fee ling of reality.

LT: I’m very proud of things Maori and all around me in the street I see Maori kids wearing American stuff—baseball caps, homeboy look, all these costumes—it drives me crazy. All that stuff is a cultural invasion of New Zealand by America. I don’t really mind it in reality but I said to [production designer] Mike Kane, Let’s make sure that in this movie we don’t have any of that whatsoever. So we kind of created a whole look that was purely New Zealand.

SM: So, you’re sort of doing some improvements?

LT I guess that’s a valid argument. Maori society is kind of like a huge amorphous thing. It’s still very tribal. I’m not sure quite what it is in the cities any more; it’s fracturing all over the place. I know the reality is McDonald’s, KFC, homeboy, baseball caps, Jurassic Park. But I wanted to make it so Maori that it would export itself as a Maori film even though it’s been tinkered with, right? I said to [cinematographer] Stuart Drybergh, Look, we’ve got a unique opportunity here to filter the movie in a way that enhances the brown skin tones of everyone that’s Maori. Because you and I know that there are incredibly strong-featured Maori out there, but some of them are kinda white, like me. The pigmentation has gone from the skin. I just decided to enrich everybody’s skin tones with filters. I wanted the film to be about Maori in general terms rather than specifically. Or specific because it functions in a general way. If you notice, the film isn’t set anywhere. Even though you know we shot it in Auckland, we don’t show place names. It could be anywhere large and urban in New Zealand.

SM: In the film, the main character, Beth, leaves the city and returns to her marae in the country to bury her child, Grace. Some commentators have criticized this as representing an unrealistic solution to the plight of urban Maori.

LT: Of course it is! I’m not suggesting that by going back to the marae a light will suddenly shine down from above and everything will be rosy.

SM: Although you do photograph the marae in a beautiful golden light. Almost a mythological light.

LT: Sure. What I wanted to show an audience—especially an international audience—is that the marae as I know it, and as most Maori know it, is an extraordinary place. It’s a communal gathering place, a place where anyone can speak their mind. It’s a place of healing. And if Beth was going to go back there and take her kids there for the funeral, I didn’t want it to be miserable. There are echoes of John Ford in there—Ford always had the best funerals in movies. They were always on a hilltop against those fabulous skies with fluffy white clouds, and everyone dressed in black and you kind of went, My God! This is phenomenal! They were sad occasions but he made them look so rich. So, in death, I wanted the marae to represent all the values that I know they do represent.

But it was never my intention to say that by going back to your roots you will solve your problems, hey presto! This is not a fucking Disney movie.

SM: In fact the film implies that some of the problems besetting the Heke family stem from the hierarchical structure of the marae. Jake’s slave ancestry meant the elders were against his marriage to Beth. They had to leave the marae.

LT: We know that slavery existed in Maori culture in some form. The subjugation of one tribe by another resulted in the killing of a large number of enemies and then the enslavement of any survivors. But it wasn’t something that carried on through generations, like black slavery in America, where children were born into slavery. It seems to have been a one-off thing. However, in every marae or around every marae, you would find a subculture, a lower caste. Same old bullshit class hierarchical structures that exist anywhere. So you’re right to a degree, the marae is responsible for Jake’s psychological makeup. In the late 20th century, here is a guy who is fucked up by his lineage. He feels hated by his own people.

SM: He was a slave within his culture, but in turning his back on the marae he becomes a slave to cultural poverty.

LT: Criminally, in our modern urbanized society there is a growing subculture of mostly Maori and Polynesian who are welfare-dependent. Our story is about a dysfunctional family that has cut itself off from its spiritual roots so the kids are growing up culturally bereft. These Maori, men and women, all over the goddamned country, are all at their wits’ end. There are gangs full of dysfunctional young Maori. What are we doing? We’ll do this, we’ll do that. We’ll lash out. Fuck you! And so that’s where the character of Bennet [George Henare] comes in, the social worker. I wanted him to be like Peter Sharples and other guys out in West Auckland who are actively doing an enormous amount of work to rescue young Maori from destruction by offering them insight into their own culture. It’s about being readmitted into a culture you never knew and discovering that there’s an incredible thing going on. It’s all about self-esteem and confidence. Once you know who you are, after that you make your own mistakes, you make your life what it is.

SM: Have you made yourself into a Maori filmmaker?

LT: I’m a filmmaker. People started to tag me as a Maori filmmaker.

SM: Does that piss you off?

LT: It’s something I knew they’d try and do. All sorts of politicized people will try to draw you into their fold. There’s nothing wrong with that. You just say yes or no.

SM: It seems to me that there’s a strong Christian mythological thread running through Once Were Warriors. The idea that love can be transforming, love can save people. You even have a sort of crucifixion in the character of Grace, who is raped by a member of her extended family—like the betraying kiss of Judas—and hangs herself on a tree. She gets crucified. And it’s like this act is redemptive, releasing love into a harsh society.

LT: I wanted her to be representative of everything that is good about the human spirit. I knew that she had to be sacrificed. No one else could die other than Grace. The best person in the world had to die in order for all our sins. . . . That is pure cinema rather than anything else. But there’s no doubt about it, I do believe, being a parent, you’ve got to offer love. If you don’t offer that to kids. . . . Jake Heke never did, you see. He had no love to give. To him, you grew up tough and that was it.

SM: Christianity has often been seen as representing the corruption of Maori culture.

LT: Well, of course. Maori had their own spiritual way of dealing with things and then along came the missionaries, who were always the advance guard of colonialism.

SM: You mentioned the dysfunctionality of Maori gangs. But in Once Were Warriors, although the gang is fierce, it also enacts a close family structure. And its members all sport stunning tattoos based on classic Maori designs, instead of the usual “Hate” or “Fuck You!” that you often do see inked on their foreheads. And your gang’s patches could be out of an Armani catalogue! Some people have beefed that you’re glamorizing gangs.

LT: It’s not wrong to think it’s a glamorization. I deliberately did that. What we know as New Zealanders, and what the world doesn’t know, is that the gangs here are pretty vicious. Alan Duff hates gangs, and in the book his gang is despicable—ugly, fat, bloated, toothless, full of drugs and alcohol, raping bastards. That’s the picture he wanted to portray. I know that gangs can be like that, but I wanted to give another example of a positive side of Maoridom. These guys are still completely at odds with society—they are still dangerous. But within their own extended-family group they have a strict moral code, a strong sense of value to themselves. They’re staunch. The reason they all tattoo themselves up is to almost terrify the public, but at the same time it’s not like the old-style gangs that just say “Fuck,” “Hate,” and “Mongrel Mob Forever” on their faces. I said, Let’s make these guys representative of a warrior class that used to exist. My gang’s literally five years in the future.

SM: How do you interpret the title Once Were Warriors?

LT: It’s a group of people who are bereft of culture. They were once a proud warrior race and now they’ve lost it. What we’re saying in the movie, though, is that within modern Maori it’s possible to recognize many warrior figures, although they may be fighting in new ways and creating new values by reclaiming tradition.

SM: These are your future warriors, like the gang idea you just mentioned?

LT: Well, there’s also the social worker Bennet, who teaches Boogie to carry his tattoo within him. But more than anywhere the strongest warrior tradition these days is within women—women like Hana Jackson, who almost singlehandedly reinvigorated the Maori language in the ’70s, when it was dying out.

SM: It’s obviously significant in your film that Grace is a writer.

LT: I wanted her to be a diarist and a writer. Maori is an oral history, and I wanted to say, Here is a young woman who may be cut off from her culture, but it is pouring out of her anyway—and in new forms of expression.

SM: As a filmmaker, I guess, you yourself are extending the oral tradition.

LT: Alan Duff sold 30,000 copies of Once Were Warriors, and in terms of New Zealand publishing that’s huge. But cinema is far more able to reach people than literature. Only certain people read books; Maori don’t, for example. I wanted to communicate to a wider audience. I wanted to make the film accessible to Maori.

I think some people wanted Warriors to be really rugged and rough, savage 16-mm. stuff like a Ken Loach film. But I’ve always known that while in the film community and film festivals Loach is king, and is brilliant, it doesn’t translate into great box office. I wanted the story to be hard, but I was also committed to keeping people in the theater. It’s such a tough story—at what point were they going to leave? When the wife’s beaten up? When the daughter’s raped? We had to craft the film in such a way that an audience could be sustained beyond those unmerciful moments. I knew I had to abandon Loach. I’ll do hard social realism but I’ll give it almost a Sergio Leone quality. Once Were Warriors had to have what I call cinematic value, had to be a cinematic experience. I wanted people to see this film, which is such a part of our country and so important for all of us, really a kind of defining document of our nation.

Stuart McKenzie is one of the directors of MAP, a film production company based in Wellington, New Zealand.