Once Were Warriors was a one of a flight of films I saw at the dawn of IFC. It was one of the films that most marked me in my formative years as a filmmaker. It’s one of a handful of movies that rocked me to my core – in a good way. I was younger than one ideally should have been to be watching such fair but the upbringing of those who end up in film in one form or another is likely not orthodox.
As I progressed in film studies this film continued to shine as a true independent film. It was raw but lacking sensationalism, emotional while avoiding manipulation, a first nation film for the whole world to see, a film prizing honesty over spectacle.
In many ways it quite literally shined a spotlight subgenre of Kiwi film focusing on Māori culture. It paved the way for the works of Taika Waititi, like Boy, and subsequent films starring James Rolleston to get more international notice.
An interest in native cinema helps but is not mandatory when it comes to appreciating this film, The film starts off by plunging us right into the Heke family’s life as Beth (Rena Owen) need to keep everyone together against great odds based on the sociopolitical barriers the Māori face in modern New Zealand, but those things are unique in their details only and become apparent as the film moves on.
Clearly with the centrality of Beth’s character, Rena Owen is crucial to the success of the film, and she delivers and emotional cascade that radiates throughout the film. As such Owen’s was one of the most decorated actresses of 1994-1995 earning Best Actress awards at the San Diego International Film Festival; Montréal World Film Festival; Fantasporto; Nominations at the New Zealand Film and TV Awards and the Chicago Film Critics Association.
One thing that the behind-the-scenes materials help to underscore is how casting Temuera Morrison as Jake was an unorthodox, due to how he had become well-known and his persona, but it most certainly paid off. On the one hand you needed him to be a violent brute when his fuse runs out, on the other hand you need to see the jovial charmer who could win everyone over, and be the kind who could keep a family together despite his best efforts to splinter every one.
However, his and everyone’s success is due to Lee Tamahori’s vision he weaves naturalistic performances, heightened emotion, camera movement, edgy environs, and a rock music score to create a tale about a modern dystopian existence for a people whom once were warriors.
As one who went into this film for the first time completely unprepared, I’d recommend nothing more than the bare minimum and save all the bonuses for after you’ve seen it.
As far as the bonus features are concerned, there is the previously referenced vintage 1994 behind the scenes featurette on the film. It starts with a disclaimer stating the quality of the film is presented as is, and there was only so much that could be done. The need for the disclaimer is understandable but I’d always rather supplemental features be included rather than not even if they’re not in the greatest shape.
Aside from that Film Movement continues its tradition of including a newly written essay from a film writer well versed in the film at hand. The brief essay on Once Were Warriors by Peter Calder is most illuminating, and best left for after viewing especially if the film is new-to-you.
This Blu-ray is a must-buy for admirers of this film (which are numerous) and should be a rental priority for enthusiasts of foreign films, especially indigenous cinema.