Blu-ray Review: ONCE WERE WARRIORS, Still Vibrant and Effective 20 Years Later

Editor, U.S. ; Dallas, Texas (@HatefulJosh)
Blu-ray Review: ONCE WERE WARRIORS, Still Vibrant and Effective 20 Years Later

The early '90s were a magical time for independent cinema.

There has always been a lot of talk about how American independent cinema became a major cultural force during those years. Books like Spike, Mike, Slackers, & Dykes focused on the renaissance that brought filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch, Kevin Smith, and Spike Lee down from the film festival stratosphere and into the popular consciousness. However, similar breakouts were happening all around the world, and one of the most potent films of the decade was Lee Tamahori's story of a dysfunctional modern Maori family, Once Were Warriors.

In discussing this film with friends and colleagues over the last few weeks, the general consensus was that it was a powerful film for its time, but it seems to have spoken more to angry youth than resigned adulthood, and I can see why. This was a film that I often saw in the previews before tapes that I rented in high school, but for some reason never checked out on my own. I'm not sure why it never went beyond peripheral awareness for me, but I can imagine that my 15-year-old self would've eaten it up.

This is the story of Beth Heke (Rena Owen) and her family. She is a mother of three, a wife, and one tough broad to boot. Her husband, Jake (Temuera Morrison), is a brawny, small-minded savage who doesn't like to think things through, and resorts to violence before reason to solve his problems. Beth struggles to keep her family together as one by one they fall apart: one son in jail, another in a gang, and a daughter who becomes the victim of sexual violence that no one can stop all threaten - and occasionally succeed - to tear them to shreds.

Before this film there hadn't been any major movie projects that focused on the indigenous people of New Zealand in any kind of dramatic fashion. Once Were Warriors addresses the isolation that plagues many indigenous populations around the world when their colonizers leave them behind in the name of progress. Tribal cultures and customs are forgotten or misidentified as archaic reminders of a savage past. New economies build infrastructure without an interest in maintaining a working population that doesn't fit the new demographic. But worst of all, these pressures all mount in public only to be unleashed in private, creating a resentful community that doesn't know how to express itself.

Obviously, not all tribal indigenous communities are havens for violence, but we in the USA have been no better at acknowledging and respecting our indigenous peoples than anyone else. In fact, in many cases, we are worse. Constant disrespect for land promised to tribal communities lead to protests like the one going on right this minute regarding the building of an oil pipeline through Sioux land. That's just one instance of the disrespect that marginalizes a community. Once Were Warriors puts a face on the struggle that happens behind closed doors, and the revolution that must take place, one family at a time.

Lee Tamahori's film may strike viewers today as heavy-handed, and that's certainly a fair criticism. It's still a powerful experience, however, and a look into a world that not many get to see.

The Disc

Once Were Warriors is my first opportunity to check out Film Movement's new line of Blu-ray releases, and if this is what we can expect from the Film Movement Classics collection, I'm a happy camper. This is undoubtedly the best Once Were Warriors has ever looked on home video. The film has been cleaned up and looks like it could've been shot yesterday. This new transfer has a few specks, but nothing that takes you out of the experience. The opening credits are oddly windowboxed (black borders on all four sides), but that goes away after the credits are over. It's a wonderful presentation that allows the film to speak for itself.

There are two extras included with this set, one on the disc and another in printed form. First there is a 12-minute vintage featurette that talks to the pincipal cast and crew about the production and how amazing it is that a film is taking on this material. On the printed side there is a six-page essay documenting the film's history and cultural impact by New Zealand journalist Peter Calder that mankes for very enlightening reading.

This is a great disc. Buy it.

Once Were Warriors

  • Lee Tamahori
  • Riwia Brown
  • Alan Duff (novel)
  • Rena Owen
  • Temuera Morrison
  • Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell
  • Julian Arahanga
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Lee TamahoriNew ZealandRena OwenTemuera MorrisonRiwia BrownAlan DuffMamaengaroa Kerr-BellJulian ArahangaCrimeDrama

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