A hard-hitting story of domestic violence, gangs and alcoholism amongst an urban Māori whānau (extended family), 'Once Were Warriors' was director Lee Tamahori’s adaption Alan Duff’s bestselling novel.
The film introduced Rena Owen as Beth Heke, the mother of the Heke family, who fights to protect her children despite the violence she faces at the hands of her husband Jake "the Muss", played by Temuera Morrison.
The film was a strong departure from both their previous work with Owen returning to New Zealand after half a decade on the British stage and Morrison deferring his much-loved role as Dr. Hone Ropata on the soap opera ‘Shortland Street’.
It was also director Lee Tamahori’s feature film debut after honing his skills under ‘Pork Pie’ director Geoff Murphy and directing a number of TV dramas.
The film was lauded internationally, winning Best Film at the Durban, Montreal and Rotterdam International Film Festivals as well as at the New Zealand Film & Television Awards. The acting of both Owens and Morrison was also praised by critics and won them awards both at home and abroad.
Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell who played the role of Grace Heke at just 15, recalls being shocked at the impact the film had worldwide.
“I was so young I didn't understand that these were universal subjects. I didn't realise that until a month or so after the film when we had people really accolading what we had done and how we had brought all these subjects out into the light.”
The film rocketed many of those involved to fame. Lee Tamahori moved to Hollywood and went on to direct several films including ‘Die Another Day’ in the James Bond franchise.
Owen went on to roles in Star Wars: Episode II and III as well as appearing in several international independent films and US and Australian dramas. Morrison also appeared in the Star Wars film franchise as bounty hunter Jango Fett and lent his voice to the video games, as well as becoming a talk show host, releasing an album and continuing to act in New Zealand.
In 1999, both Owens and Morrison reprised their roles in the sequel ‘What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?’ which was directed by Ian Mune. The film follows Jake ‘the Muss’ Heke as he attempts to reform his behavior and reconcile with his family.
On the 20th anniversary of the release of ‘Once Were Warriors’ a documentary ‘Once Were Warriors: Where are they now?’ was released. It reveals the struggles the actors faced during filming and discusses the legacy of the film; written, produced and acted by Maori.
The documentary was produced by Julian Arahanga, who played the role of eldest son Nig in the film. As a 22 year old when the movie was filmed, 'Once Were Warriors' came at a pivotal moment in his life and spring boarded him into films such as the Matrix.
For Arahanga one of the key reasons for creating the documentary was to find out whether his fellow cast members also felt that by acting in the film they had been a part of something special.
"There's still that genuine connection. There's a bond that's been forged, it's not just filmmaking."
"When you have those good memories and you know you've been into battle together and done good things together, that bond stays with you for life” he told The Dominion Post.