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The Mori Struggle: Once Were Warriors
Set in the backdrop of Auckland, New Zealand, Once Were Warriors follows the life of the Hekes, a contemporary Mori family, as they struggle with cultural degradation that manifests in domestic violence.
Set in the backdrop of Auckland, New Zealand, Once Were Warriors follows the life of the Hekes, a contemporary Mãori family, as they struggle with cultural degradation that manifests in domestic violence.
Beth Heke, played by Rena Owen, is the mother of three children and wife of Jake "the Muss" Heke. Played by Temuera Morrison, Jake is nicknamed for his physical presence, "the Muss" being short for "Muscles."
The couple's life started under the disapproving eye of Beth Heke's traditional family who are steeped in the old ways of the Mãori culture. Her husband is an example of how those traditions are jeopardized in a sub-culture of gangs and lost directives.
Married for eighteen years, Jake and Beth live in a slum with their five children. Jake is perpetually out of work and what little money that comes into their life is spent on alcohol and entertaining Jake's questionable acquaintances.
Beth struggles to balance between appeasing her husband's insatiable partying and leading her children along the path of life with traditional Mãori values. Jake's violent temper continually disrupts her efforts and squelches her will.
The Heke's five children find home life a frightening and unstable experience. It is often Grace, the eldest daughter, who manages cleaning, feeding and attending to her younger siblings. Her efforts are often futile as the large crowds of partiers that are welcomed by her father drain the family's cash and food and leave their home in tatters.
Jake presents himself as an easy going guy out for a good time but his temper creates constant tension. It takes only a moment for him to lash out and his wife is often the object of his beatings. During one party, Jake's anger turns into a savage attack of Beth in front of their friends, none of which step in to defend her as her husband brutally beats and rapes her.
The Heke's children are adrift amid their parent's dysfunctional relationship. The eldest son, Nig, is dispelled by his father's brutal behavior and finds a new family in a street gang where his initiation includes a savage beating and facial tattoos.
The second son, Mark, is placed in a state home for his history of minor criminal offences. Although traumatic, the event transforms Mark's life as he finds a new mentor and discovers his rich Mãori heritage.
Their thirteen-year-old daughter Grace attempts to escape through her writing, she journals her frustration and angst. She shares her fear with the only friend she has, a drug-addicted homeless boy named Toot who lives in a wrecked car under the highway. Toot is the only person who listens to her and truly cares.
The film's climax heightens the brutality of the Heke's life and highlights the danger that is their children's reality. The partying, the alcohol and the dysfunctional environment of Jake and Beth's life lead to an irreversible event that shakes them as parents.
Jake continues on his destructive path but the incident frees Beth from the chains of her soulless life with her brutal husband. She discovers her strength, dormant but still pulsing with the dignity of her ancestor's heritage. With her new determination, she begins reassembling her identity, her family and after a long, dark past begins looking to the future.
Once Were Warriors was New Zealand's first indigenous blockbuster. Its startling interpretation of the struggle of modern day Mãori culture is as difficult to turn away from as it is to watch.