A reflection on Māori representation in New Zealand film, written by Noah Mackie

27 years ago, Lee Tamahori’s film Once Were Warriors screened for the first time, unearthing one fragment of the thousands suffering from poverty in Aotearoa. Through the screen, Tamahori disrupted a pākehā ūtopian myth that led Māori into a world completely unknown. It’s no joke that Once Were Warriors is hard to watch, a clear memory I have of the film was in my year 12 media class, we had a new student from the UK, and on his first day our teacher declared we were watching the movie. I couldn’t think of a better representation.

When I think of Aotearoa, I think of a place that was kept in balance by the knowledge that has been passed down for thousands of years throughout the Pacific. In the blink of an eye, this was flipped upside down through colonial powers and glossed over as a paradise for Europeans. However, under all the gloss is the grime left by the pākehā hands that poorly attempted to break a culture. The Heke whānau are a symbol of ongoing Māori displacement, desperately trying to survive in the urban environment that neglects them.

Well why don’t they just get a job?

Major issues in the whare mean that Māori are far less likely to complete school, and more than twice as likely to be unemployed and receive income support than non-Māori. The Heke whānau try to numb the pain of displacement through drinking, violence, and abuse. These means of coping to survive are still a reality for Māori whānau today, where Māori are more likely to become a victim of alcoholism than non-Māori, especially wāhine who are twice as likely to drink hazardously than non-Māori wāhine.

In February last year, 41% of adults in Aotearoa said they were impacted by the alcohol use of a family member or close friend over a one-year period, and nearly 30% said they were impacted by the illicit drug use of a family member or close friend. Methamphetamine remains a massive national concern as it is the most commonly detected drug nationwide, more than cannabis, of which, Māori are much more likely to receive court action for low-level drug offences compared to Pākehā. With domestic violence, 1 in 3 wāhine have experienced physical and/or sexual violence in an intimate partner relationship in their lifetime, 87% of these wahine won’t report their violence to authorities. And in 2020 alone, there were over 77,000 reports of concern, roughly 56,000 of these relate to children.

What is most startling about this, is the number of people who don’t report family violence. For most Kiwis, dialling 111 in an emergency is an immediate way to solve a problem, for Māori and victims of abuse, the implications of speaking to someone about their trauma and abuse is far from a solution. Many people who experience trauma and abuse aren’t able to express their reality to someone, even if help is presented to them, survivors will likely return to their abusers as it’s the only form of familiarity they have.

The Heke whānau are one example that demonstrates the inability to kōrero trauma. And when someone feels cornered and lost, hope becomes lost, and they likely risk taking their own life. Grace, the daughter of the Heke whānau, exemplifies this, she is the orator of a whānau attempting to make sense of the confusion in her life. The tragic tipping point for Grace is when she is raped by someone who was supposed to be a family friend, and her confusion ultimately leads her to commit suicide. The prevalence of suicide in Aotearoa makes it a common, yet difficult conversation, and despite the nation’s high suicide rate, Aotearoa also one of the highest youth suicide rates in the OECD.

The symptoms of colonisation are still present, which begs the question, who’s helping who? According to national statistics between 1983 to 1992, serious categories of assault, injuring, or wounding had increased by 121%. The mainstream media did its job, intentionally focusing on incidents in the suburbs, homes, schools, and pubs where violence was taking place. Gender, age, and ethnicity were hot topics for the news, often accompanied by photos of the victim or perpetrator.

Rather than seeing and listening to the underlying issues, mainstream media instilled fear in their predominately pākehā audience by cultivating the coloniser’s wet dream of the noble savage; one that knows his place and will obediently stay there forever. In other words, the representation of Māori in NZ society became based on pākehā stereotypes. Now stereotypes have significantly impacted the way Māori are able to function in a pākehā dominant society.

Stereotypes feed the vicious cycle Maori have been encased in for centuries because they put forward a false version of what it means to be Māori. Once Were Warriors isn’t just an iconic piece of cinema, it submerges its audience in a Māori reality; an uncomfortable feeling of not knowing when to sink or swim for dear life in a poverty stricken environment.

It is a true portrayal of post-colonial New Zealand, where the victims of the film (mainly wahine) desperately seek the strength of the past. Māori represent themselves every day, it’s only pākehā who have the luxury to debate the politics of representation. Māori are claiming empowerment and shifting Aotearoa into a nation determined to alleviate injustices. However, to achieve balance there has to be equal effort. From the words of Tamahori, “any culture has got to be able to examine every facet of itself, whether it be good or bad”.