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Once Were Warriors

Why is the encounter with modern society and big cities so brutal for the aboriginal people in many countries around the world? To find out, watch the movie Once Were Warriors about the Maoris, New Zealand's indigenous people.

A maori with traditional maori painting in his face. Photo.

Once Were Warriors is a 1994 film based on Alan Duff's debut novel about the highly dysfunctional family, the Hekes. Beth Heke, the mother of five children, is proud of her Maori background, whereas Jake, her husband, thinks it is difficult to come to terms with his Maori slave descent and subsequently turns to violence and alcohol as a refuge. When the pair started to see each other 18 years ago, Beth's family who could boast ancestry with royal Maoris, did everything in their power to stop the alliance. However, Beth made a choice, some would say that it was fatal; she chose love over family concerns, broke all ties with her Maori family and the village, and moved to the capital Wellington with Jake. When Beth confronts Jake with the following words: "If my spirit can survive living with you for eighteen years, then I can survive anything," it reveals a lot about their marriage. In this heartbreaking movie you'll see how merciless life in the city suburb is, not only for Beth and Jake, but also for their children, Grace, Boogie and Nig.

Watch the trailer (01:56 minutes) and the footage video with interviews with the director, the author of the screenplay and the actors (12:26 minutes) on this link: Once Were Warriors - Trailer

Tasks and Activities


En gang var vi krigere

Filmen er fra New Zealand og handler om dagens sosiale forhold for Maoriene - landets urbefolkning. Hverdagslivet er preget av arbeidsløshet, alkohol og vold. Beth og Jake har vært gift i atten år og har fem barn. Hun stammer fra en Maoristamme, mens hans forfedre var slaver.

Dette har gitt Jake et mindreverdighets-kompleks som han prøver å kompensere for ved å bruke vold, både mot sin kone og andre som kommer i veien for ham.

Barna deres blir vitne til både vold og fyll, men prøver å holde sammen trass i de ekstremt dårlige forholdene. Sønnen Boogie blir sendt på et guttehjem, en annen sønn forlater familien og slår seg sammen med en gjeng Maori-aktivister med tatoveringer i ansiktet.

Da datteren Grace blir voldtatt av sin onkel og begår selvmord, bestemmer moren seg for å forlate Jake i sin elendighet. Hun reiser til sin familie for å leve sammen med sine egne, og finne igjen Maorienes stolte tradisjoner fra den gang de var krigere.

Filmen er et sterkt uttrykk for Maorienes situasjon i dag, og kan være en påminnelse om hva de hvite inntrengerne har påført den innfødte befolkningen både i USA, Australia og New Zealand.


Ein gong var vi krigarar

Filmen er frå New Zealand og handlar om dagens sosiale tilhøve for Maoriane - urfolka i landet. Kvardagslivet er prega av arbeidsløyse, alkohol og vald. Beth og Jake har vore gifte i atten år og har fem barn. Ho nedstammar frå ei Maori-stamme, medan forfedrane hans vore slavar.

Dette har gitt Jake ei mindreverdskjensle som han freistar å kompensere for ved å bruke vald, både mot kona si og andre som kjem i vegen for han.

Barna deira blir vitne til både vald og fyll, men prøver å halde saman trass dei ekstremt dårlege tilhøva. Sonen Boogie blir sendt til ein guteheim, ein annan son forlet familien og slår seg saman med ein gjeng Maori-aktivistar med tatoveringar i andletet.

Då dattera Grace blir valdteken av onkelen sin, bestemmer mora seg for å forlate Jake i elendet sitt. Ho reiser til familien sin for å leve saman med sine eigne og finne igjen dei stolte tradisjonane til Maoriane frå den gongen dei var krigarar.

Filmen er eit sterkt uttrykk for situasjon til Maoriane i dag, og kan vere ei påminning om kva dei kvite inntrengjarane har påført urfolka både i USA, Australia og New Zealand.

Suggested translation

The film is from New Zealand and deals with today’s social conditions for the Maori – the country’s native population. Everyday life is characterized by unemployment, alcohol, and violence. Beth and Jake have been married for eighteen years and have five children. She is descended from a Maori tribe, while his ancestors were slaves who were brought to the island by the English. This has given Jake an inferiority complex which he tries to compensate for by using violence, both against his wife and anyone who comes in his way.

Their children witness both violence and drunkenness, but try to stick together in spite of the extremely bad conditions. Their son Boogie is sent off to a boys' home, another son leaves the family and joins a mob of Maori activists with tattooed faces.

When their daughter Grace is raped by her uncle and commits suicide, her mother decides to leave Jake in his misery. She goes to her family to live with her own and recapture the proud Maori traditions from the time when they were warriors.

The film is a strong expression of the Maori situation today, and can be a reminder of what the white intruders have brought upon the native population of both the USA, Australia, and New Zealand.

Analyze the Film

  1. Describe Jake’s situation in the beginning of the movie, and what symbolic effect it has?
  2. Nig leaves the family to join a group of seemingly violent mobsters. How is he taken into the group? Are there examples of how similar rituals occur in other cultures?
  3. What kind of a group is the one that Nig joins? What is their identification, and what is the cultural significance of this community?
  4. Towards the end of the movie Nig asks Boogie if he wants to join his group and have a tattoo – Boogie says: “I’ve got mine on the inside” What does he mean by that?
  5. Where do we meet white people in the film – and what roles do they play? (Is this deliberate from the director?)
  6. Can you spot examples of the use of contrasts in the film?
  7. What is Jake’s background? In what way is that important? Is he a complex character?
  8. What is Beth’s background, and what does it mean in her relationship to Jake?
  9. Grace’s friend Toot (the kid living in the car wreck) dreamed about getting old enough to get social benefit. What does that indicate?
  10. What is Jake’s general attitude towards other people, and how does he show it? (What is his real problem?)
  11. Are these people happy sometimes? (“Beth: I’m not drunk, I’m happy”) Where do you see traces of love in the film?
  12. How does the boys' home turn out to be so important to Boogie?
  13. There is some quite explicit violence in the film. (Why all the violence and alcohol?) However, if we step back and see the film in a thematic perspective, we will also see the structural violence that is there. What does that mean?
  14. Where do we meet Maori culture and tradition in the film?
  15. Mention some tragic elements of the film.
  16. Comment on the title of the film, and discuss thematic approaches.
  17. In what way does the setting (both social and material) relate to the theme(s) of the film?

Arrange a Debate in Class

You need a leader of the debate and a secretary.

These are some of the words that you will need in the debate. Look them up in the dictionary.


* (commit) suicide * domestic violence * culture crash * majority * minority * arranged marriage * countryside * urban * social welfare * on the dole * unemployment * assimilation * dysfunctional family * tribal culture * bridging cultures * ethnic groups * Maori * community * alienation * juvenile detention * abusive relationship * rebel groups * predestination/predestined/destiny/fate * inferiority complex

Divide the class into several groups. Each group is assigned a viewpoint (no matter what the members actually think). The members go together to prepare their "views" and how to defend them.

Each group adopts one of these viewpoints about whom/what to blame:

Sist oppdatert 28.05.2018
Skrevet av Jan-Louis Nagel og Eli M. Huseby


Art and Films