Bigger than Spielberg

After `The Piano' and `Heavenly Creatures', New Zealand may be about to produce its biggest hit yet. Ian Pryor reports on the latest film sensation from Down Under
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The Independent Culture
NEW ZEALAND film-maker Lee Tamahori has to be some kind of miracle worker. He has taken arguably the most controversial novel in his country's history and, against the odds, made an astounding success of it. Hot on the heels of Jane Campion's The Piano and, even more recently, Heavenly Creatures, yet another New Zealand film, Once Were Warriors, may be about to cause an international sensation.

As far removed from The Piano as you could imagine, Warriors is the kind of film that takes on a host of unpalatable topics - poverty, violence, alcohol and cultural alienation - and somehow manages to win over audiences by saying something startling and new.

Made with a cast of novices, its dramatisation of Maori culture and low- life has been an unexpected hit in its own country where, since opening last May, it has become the highest-grossing film ever, eclipsing even Jurassic Park. Warriors started a buzz last year at Cannes and went on to win prizes at festivals around the world; more bizarre still, it has been a hit in countries as diverse as Italy and South Africa. But will it work in Britain and America? Who knows, though Kiwi hopes are riding high. Jane Campion's trail-blazing may have ended the habit that left most New Zealand films on video shelves on this side of the globe.

The film tells the story of a Maori family trapped in the urban jungle of south Auckland. Its main characters are a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed father, his long-suffering wife (whom he beats regularly) and a family variously embroiled in gangs, tragedy and corrective institutions. In New Zealand - deeply conscious of racial tensions between Maori and pakeha, as the white European settlers are called - Warriors has been one of those rare films that not only connected with, but also changed, peoples' lives.

Yet when Warriors began filming two years ago in Auckland, it would be fair to say that public expectations were low. Many of the cast were entirely new to film and the 36-day shooting period was blisteringly tight. And the country was shocked that a nationwide search for an "unknown" to play the musclebound, wife-beating Jake Heke led to the casting of a clean-cut soap star, Temuera Morrison. Everyone yelled "sell out".

So many people felt they knew Jake already. When part-Maori writer Alan Duff's first novel Once Were Warriors was published in 1990, it came as close to sending shockwaves through New Zealand as a book can. The Maori make up around 13 per cent of New Zealand's population of three and a half million, but the unemployment rate among them is three times that of the pakeha. Nearly half the country's prisoners are Maori. Duff painted an angry picture of a former warrior race drowning its lost pride - and poisoning its future - in alcohol and violence. Critics raved but many Maori argued that its portrait of domestic violence and gangs played directly into the hands of racist pakeha.

It was a timely book. The history of European conquest and past atrocities had been uppermost in the nation's mind, due to court victories by Maori groups seeking compensation for lost land. But in many ways New Zealand's relative lack of racial conflict is extraordinary, stemming perhaps from Maori political navety. Although the Maori race is in trouble by any statistical measurement, New Zealanders can look to other nations and still persuade themselves that they live in one of the most racially untroubled places on earth.

One of the reasons that Duff's novel caused such a sensation was that although he is part-Maori himself, he is a right-winger who blames the Maori for bringing many of their troubles on themselves and has famously accused them of being ``lazy". He perhaps speaks with conviction because he is the survivor of a violent childhood and spells in juvenile detention.

In a country whose fiction is traditionally as acclaimed - and as unpopular - as its films, Once Were Warriors was a huge hit, massively outselling most other Kiwi novels. But the book's multi-character, stream-of-consciousness storytelling style said "Film Me" about as loudly as Virginia Woolf's famously unadaptable To the Lighthouse.

When director Lee Tamahori, also part-Maori, read the book he was impressed by its ``riveting and vital" style. But he thought it "too hard, too depressing'' to turn into a movie. Then he saw Duff's attempt at a script working it into a conventional narrative form. ``That's when I got interested," says Tamahori. But would the 43-year-old film-maker's background prove to be an asset or a liability? Aside from a few short television dramas, his reputation rested largely on being one of the country's most sought-after directors of TV commercials.

The beer-guzzling, brawl-ridden pub culture once ingrained in Kiwi society is depicted powerfully in Warriors, in scenes inspired by the huge pubs Tamahori used to visit as a teenager. ``Those pubs were all we had. In the Sixties, the law required that every tavern must have a public bar - so people could swill and fight and drink any amount of bloody public grog. It was ridiculous."

In New Zealand the film appealed to all ages, it led to the re-opening of long-closed small-town cinemas and it became the subject of the country's biggest video-piracy case. And it had a profound sociological impact. Domestic violence has traditionally been one of those subjects brushed under the table, but after the film opened, women's refuges reported a surge in admissions and police noted a dramatic rise in reports of domestic violence.

By July, Jill Hema, a Maori women's refuge co-ordinator, was claiming that south Auckland refuges were overflowing: ``Women have been coming through saying, `We've seen Once Were Warriors', and that's me. It hit home." The same month a woman from Bay of Plenty rang her local paper to explain how she had been beaten by her alcoholic husband for 20 years. She was a pakeha but she said: "I felt every punch that she got. That movie was so real, it was just uncanny."

The ultimate irony, of course, is that the film is perhaps the worst advertisement for the country ever made. But it demonstrates to the world what miracles this underpopulated country is capable of. Take the large Maori cast, many of them first-time performers: in painting a convincing portrait of a family - and a race - in deep despair, they exert such a powerful presence that they show themselves capable of almost any achievement on screen. The same is true of the film as a whole. It begs the question of how a land with a tiny population manages to produce film-makers of such originality and vision as Jane Campion, Peter Jackson, Vincent Ward and Alison Maclean. All of them have been paid the ultimate accolade and are working with Hollywood. Now Tamahori has won his spurs - he too has just signed up for two American movies.

! `Once Were Warriors' (18) is reviewed on The Critics pages of the main paper.