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FICTIONAL WARRIORS: REAL RESPONSES
FICTIONAL WARRIORS: REAL RESPONSES
EMOTION, MOOD, AND COGNITION IN ONCE WERE WARRIORS
NANA MARIE DIEDERICHS
The violent New Zealand film Once Were Warriors, based on the book by Alan Duff and directed by Lee Tamahori, takes place in an urban ghetto with an array of steeped colors and a dominant soundtrack. The film centers around the Hekes, a Maori family. Jake (played by Temuera Morrison)—as his nickname Jake the Mus[cle] suggests—is an abusive husband who is often shown drinking or already drunk. Beth (played by Rena Owen) takes the brunt of his abuse as his wife, sometimes igniting the sparks, since her strong personality is the core of the film. Their three eldest children are shown dealing with the aggressive home situation in a variety of ways: Nig (played by Julian Arahanga) joins a Maori gang; Boogie (played by Taungaroa Emile) is sent to reform school after hanging out with the wrong crowd; and Gracie (played by Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell) writes stories, takes care of the younger children, and spends time with her homeless friend Toot. The film culminates tragically when Gracie, the epitome of naiveté, commits suicide after being raped by one of her father’s friends—unbeknownst to her father or mother. At the end of the film, Beth learns about Gracie’s rape from her treasured writing notebook and confronts Jake in the local tavern. After another display of brutal violence by Jake—this time toward the rapist, Beth ultimately leaves Jake to take her children to her family’s marae, the traditional rural community.
After watching the opening credits to Once Were Warriors, I found myself strongly drawn into the fictional world of the film. The film’s initial ironic comment on contemporary New Zealand—a shot of picturesque hills, the stereotypical tourist vision of New Zealand, which turns out to be merely a billboard in a grungy, rough Maori neighborhood—first indicated that this film would work to express more than just well-worn clichés; my interest was piqued. By the end of the film, I had become heavily invested emotionally in the characters and in the film in general. How did this emotional engagement come about? Why was I so moved by something I knew to be fictional? Was it simply that I was able to relate to or identify with certain characters or certain themes in the film?
While the characters and the themes provide some reason for engagement, I will argue in this paper that there is more going on in this film than a simple identification, though character saliency plays an important role. A primary factor for audience engagement for any film is that the film works logically, that we can follow its discourse and recognize characters, and thereby the film retains the spectator’s attention. This is the case with Once Were Warriors, but more aspects of engagement continue to build on this fundamental one in the film. With the help of approaches offered by research in cognitive science and the concept of the implied author, I will examine how a film labeled “postcolonial” and set in Maori New Zealand works to elicit a strong engagement from any audience, no matter what their ethnic origin, and functions in a more universal way that is not wholly dependent on surface themes through the way it cues mood, accentuating character saliency. This does not mean that I disregard themes as an important part of the engagement process. However, they are only one part of how a film operates and are often the only part that is construed for meaning. Themes are also widely used to contextualize films in a category of “postcolonial”—in this film; a “return to the roots” theme or “domestic violence” immediately comes to mind. What I will show here is how looking at more than the thematics of this film and other “postcolonial” films will allow us to escape the confines of labeling this film as merely “postcolonial” and look at the way the film operates on a more widespread level—how it works both to extract strong responses from its targeted audience of the Maori people and also to impact world audiences. In the end, this movement toward the universal, without dismissing the importance of social differences, will ultimately make a stronger case for the themes of the film, and allow the film to push further in meaning, giving it more context in a world environment.
In order to look at a film and perceive more than thematics, it is useful to turn to the field of cognitive science, where much recent work has been done to help us understand how the brain works regarding emotions and memory, two key components of interacting with fictional film narratives. Additionally, I stress the importance of the implied author, a concept which allows us to look at the how the film operates as a text, specifically how the formal aspects of the film such as music, color, mood, character saliency, and the overall style of the film work with the themes and the characters, all of these elements being subsets under the choices and presentation made by the implied author. The use of implied author avoids the dreaded intentional fallacy, since the film as a text then stands by itself and allows itself to be interpreted at each viewing with no direct contact with the real people that made the film (i.e. director, cinematographer, costumer, editor, etc.). With both cognitive science approaches to narrative and the implied author as analytical tool working together, they allow us to access areas of the film that usually would be glossed over or become subordinate to character agency, while also facilitating our understanding of how these other areas impact our brain and emotions in convincing ways.
One other remark about the thematic approach to film is pertinent here before I move on to elucidate the concept of the implied author. I stress again that looking at the themes present in a film is important, but that it is only one component of what needs to be evaluated to gain a better understanding of how a film operates. The thematic approach moves us toward the historical context and the historical reality of the film’s release, since spectators tend to tie the themes of a film to social situations in a culture. I do not want it to seem that I am overlooking the importance of this contextualization. On the contrary, it plays an important role in understanding the relevancy of certain parts of the story and mise-en-scene. Therefore, I will be looking at the historical context of the Maori people and how the film is purporting to work with its immediate environment. What I want to emphasize here is, though we may need this knowledge to fully understand subtler references in the film, the film can and does stand alone as a text to be interpreted without pigeon-holing it into one specific cultural category, which I believe indicates that there is more at stake here than reconstructing a historical context and only focusing on thematic universality, such as domestic abuse, poverty, family, tradition. Or, to look at it another way, why would I, a middle-class white female from Iowa who knew very little about the Maori people upon my first viewing of the film, become so engaged with a work of fiction when very few of the prominent themes are applicable to my own life? Hopefully by looking at how the implied author works to trigger emotions and how the brain then processes these emotions, I will have an answer to my own question, and have a better understanding of the film’s operation in a global context using my initial distance from the social situation and themes of the film.
The implied author
What is the implied author and why do we need one when discussing film? The idea of the implied author was first introduced by Wayne Booth in 1961 as a “second self” whom the writer creates in the construction of a text. Several others take up the concept, including Seymour Chatman and James Phelan. As Phelan notes in Living to Tell About It, Booth’s notion of the implied author was a response to “two contemporary theoretical positions: (1) the aesthetic idea of impersonality, the driving force behind the dictum that authors should show not tell and, in that showing, should remain neutral toward their representations; (2) the New Critical stance against authorial intention as a guide to interpretation,…[the] ‘Intentional Fallacy’” (38). Thus, the concept of implied author is a way to “account for features that would otherwise remain unexplained, or unsatisfactorily explained” (Chatman 74) without sinking into the muddy “intentionalist” debate.
Both Chatman and Phelan agree that the notion of the implied author establishes another agent between the real author and the narrator of the work. At this point, however, Chatman and Phelan differ slightly with respect to their reworked definitions of implied author. Chatman’s implied author is solely textual; he emphasizes it as a non-human agent. For Chatman, “the text is itself the implied author” (81):
I stick by the anti-intentionalist view that a published text is in fact a self-existing thing. Invention, originally an activity in the real author’s mind, becomes, upon publication, a principle recorded in the text. That principle is the residue of the real author’s labor. It is now a textual artifact. (81)
While Chatman argues for a textual implied author, Phelan’s approach claims that “the implied author is not a product of the text but rather the agent responsible for bringing the text into existence” (45). Phelan links the real author and the implied author more closely in his definition, making the implied author a version of the real author:
The implied author is a streamlined version of the real author, an actual or purported subset of the real author’s capacities, traits, attitudes, beliefs, values and other properties that play an active role in the construction of the particular text. (45)
Phelan argues for this definition in which he can account for the implied author being an accurate mirror for the real author and also for situations when the real author creates an implied author with considerable differences from him/herself. While I find Chatman’s idea of the implied author easier to use, I do not want to discredit Phelan’s argument for a more complex implied author, and would like to use aspects of both definitions.
Whether viewed solely as a textual construct or more like an additional humanlike agent, the implied author as concept remains truly vital in that it is this author who guides our reading of the text. The implied author invents among other things: the narrator, the characters, the dialogue, the setting, the descriptions, the choice of colors, the shot angles, and the timing of music. The connotations and ideologies present in the text are those of the implied author, and these ideas may or may not match up with the real author’s views. This distinction between real and implied author allows us to mention any indications of intent by the real author—in an interview about the film for example—but do not restrict us to his/her comments in order to determine a direct link between the filmmaker and what is going on in the film. Instead, while there may be a link between the real author and the implied author, we are able to account for ideas and feelings present in the film that may or may not have been a conscious effort on the part of the real author or filmmaker. More ideologies, more concepts could be involved than the director may have intended with the coming together of the variety of different aspects of film (i.e. lighting, music, character performance).
This brings me to note another significant advantage for the concept of implied author with regard to the film medium: films are collaborative. We discuss films as though the director is the sole author of such-and-such film, especially with the prominence of the “auteur theory” in film. But glancing briefly at the end credits of a film, we recognize immediately that a film is a cooperative ensemble. The director, the editor, the costumer, the cinematographer, the light crew, the set crew—all of these different people collaborate in making one single film. If we understand a film to be so multi-“authored,” why do we get the sense that there is but one author? The unifying, singular agent that we sense in the film can be accurately described as the implied author, though we usually ascribe the director’s name to this feeling of unity. I do not want to discredit the auteur theory, but rather see the implied author concept as complementary to it: the implied author can have similar characteristics in several films by the same director, and these similarities are certainly noteworthy. However, I am not focusing on the auteur theory and its implications in this paper. Instead, I would like to use the implied author concept with the help of cognitive science approaches to bring up aspects of the film often simply attributed to the director or overlooked, such as color, music, and the opening credits.
Role of cognitive science approaches to narrative
The implied author sets up how we are to view and interpret the film. Whether or not we eventually do interpret the film in the way it is encouraged is left up to our own personal tastes, experiences, and memories. This is where cognitive science plays a valuable interpretive role. With cognitive science, knowing how memory works and how emotions are stimulated helps us to comprehend why we, as spectators, respond emotionally to a fictional film and why this response is sometimes similar and sometimes entirely different from that of other spectators.
Current theorists using cognitive approaches to cinema are breaking away from psychoanalytic approaches to cinema, where the process of suturing and the illusory capacity of cinema are highly endorsed. Murray Smith, in his book Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion, and the Cinema, argues against both suture and illusion. Suturing involves placing oneself in the role of the character on-screen—becoming that character and feeling/doing everything that he/she does. Suturing is one of the ways that psychoanalysts argue we identify with characters. Murray Smith contends instead for the use of the word and concept of “engagement” over “identification.” He clearly illustrates his quandaries with the idea of identification as follows:
The problem with all three of the variants of ‘identification’ is that they found our experience of fictions on the idea of central imagining [or empathy]. Whether we are said to mistake ourselves for the central character (1), imagine the events of the narrative from the (physical and mental) perspective of the character (2), or imagine ourselves in the exact situation of the character (3), our experience of fiction is conceived as one in which we apprehend the fictional world ‘through’ a particular character. (80)
Since we clearly do not learn everything about a film through a particular character, Murray Smith, instead, makes a case for both “central imagining” (empathy) and “acentral imagining” (sympathy). With acentral imagining, we are aware of the situation as being fictional but choose to respond emotionally (Smith Engaging 102). If spectators are continually aware of the situation as fictional, as I believe we are, the idea that cinema can convince us to respond emotionally by means of illusion falls by the wayside as well. As spectators, we may become wrapped up in what action is happening on the screen, but we do not run out of the theater screaming when a train appears to be hurtling directly toward us. As Patrick Colm Hogan discusses, our survival instincts are not activated to a high enough degree to cause actual response (Cognitive 142). Therefore indicating that despite our rapture, we still know to a certain degree that the film is a fiction and not a life-threatening event.
While we know the film to be fictional at some level, we do still respond to the characters as if they are real to a certain degree. In Murray Smith’s argument for engagement as “a complex, heterogeneous set of interacting responses—autonomic, cognitive, affective” (230), he highlights the saliency of character. Though I have just claimed Murray Smith does not believe in individual character identification as the sole reason of why we respond to fictional film, he does recognize that characters, in that they represent human agents, allow us to construct them into filled-out imitations of people (31), using what is called “a person schema” (25). In this manner we are more open to emotional engagement with what we know to be fiction.
Published in 1995, Murray Smith’s book uses cognitive science to try to answer why we respond emotionally to fiction. Though he was one of the first to use cognitive science in relation to cinema, many of his ideas are still valid in cognitive theory today, such as that of character saliency and the empathy/sympathy distinction. While Smith effectively uses the tools available to him at the time, other theorists in the past decade have been able to use new advances in cognitive science to incorporate some of his ideas and give us a broader and perhaps more complete answer to the fictionality question.
Both Greg Smith and Patrick Colm Hogan use cognitive science research to explain how and why we respond to fiction. Greg Smith, in “Local Emotions, Global Moods” and later in Film Structure and the Emotion System, develops an associative network model for emotions, based on the workings of the limbic system and emotional subsystems.
The limbic system is a highly interconnected neurological center that receives information from a wide range of input systems. Its function is to evaluate that information, to provide an emotional coding based on the evaluation, to trigger an initial response, and to monitor the stream of emotional stimuli and responses…” (108)
He argues that the limbic system is required to be activated for emotional response, yet it can not cause emotion on its own (Smith Local 107)—other areas, such as body posture, vocalization, or conscious cognition must also be activated in order to produce emotion. A tense body and a shocked scream during a horror movie, while processing what is about to happen, would be sufficient cues to trigger an emotional response of fear. The structure of the limbic system allows for a flexible emotional response system, which is dependent on the number of triggers and the level of intensity of these triggers. The need for several triggers could also explain why we do not run out of the theater, fearing for our lives after a single shocking episode. Often we are cued more subtly to feel emotions, since “to experience and express an emotion requires redundant cues” (Smith Local 109. This redundancy in film can be found in more understated ways, such as the way a “mood” is constructed and perceived in a film. Instead of having emotions only linked specifically to characters, Greg Smith makes a case for those overarching feelings, which appear with the style of the film to create a mood, augmenting our emotional response toward a fictional film. I will return to the idea of mood later when discussing Once Were Warriors.
Patrick Colm Hogan, on a slightly different note, employs cognitive science to explain how memory and emotion function together in his book Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts: A Guide for Humanists. Hogan talks of memory “priming,” the way emotions and memories are triggered. He brings up one important distinction regarding emotions and our way of storing them in the brain—the distinction between emotional memory and representational memory. An emotional memory, after we have “an intense emotional experience,” is stored in a different part of our brains than that of representational memories (Cognitive 182). When later recalling a representational memory, it always triggers the emotional aspect of that memory, but the reverse is not true. Emotions can be triggered without a representational memory and this is what, he argues, happens in literature (and by extension cinema as well):
Emotional memories almost certainly play a major role in literary experience as well. In fact, I now believe the priming of representational episodic memories is not the most important source of literary emotion. Rather, it is the activation of emotional memories. Much as in ordinary life, we misattribute these feelings due to our attentional focus on other (salient and attention-grabbing) events, specifically, the events of the literary work. (Cognitive 183)
Thus, as his speculation enunciates, it is not that we feel identification with characters due to a specific similarity in our situations, but it is more likely that personal emotional memories are triggered and we displace these emotions onto the characters because they have captured our attention (though it should be noted that something similar probably caused the initial triggering of the emotional memory). Consequently, it remains important to look at more than the characters to understand our emotional involvement with a film, since it is likely that other aspects of film—such as mood, lighting, music, shot composition—could be major contributors in triggering those emotions that we often attribute to one or more characters.
To reiterate, I intend to eventually look closely at the film Once Were Warriors to determine how the film works to engage us emotionally and cognitively through the above approaches in cognitive science. Additionally, the idea of the implied author is a prerequisite for understanding this construction of the text that we, as spectators, reconstruct with each viewing. However, before doing a close reading of the film, a look at the historical contextualization of the film and culture will be important to situate the film in terms of postcolonial theory and how theory and contextualization both work for and against the film, especially since the film is often viewed initially from one or more of these perspectives. While the historical context and cultural aspects do allow another level of understanding to the film, they can also work against the film by labeling it as portraying culturally-specific traditions and enclosing the film in a postcolonial box without further regard. I would like to take an opportunity here to discuss current Maori culture and current postcolonial theory in order to avoid that my analysis of the film is limited to the same pitfalls of category-specific labels. By negotiating the postcolonial, I will be able to move beyond its limiting structure in order to emphasize the impact of the film outside of these restrictions.
Postcolonial theory: opening the box
I am interested in looking at a recent Maori film in terms of its “postcolonial” context—how this film and others have been labeled as “postcolonial” and how their being posited as such affects them. What exactly do I mean by postcolonial? And how has postcolonial been problematized in literary theory? In this section, I will propose possible answers to these questions by looking at recent postcolonial theory in relation to cultural identity and the politics of film. In addition, I will use Patrick Colm Hogan’s idea of the idiolectal nature of tradition to question the norms of postcolonial categories in order to suggest both the individual specificity and global universality of literary and filmic traditions before moving on to a close examination of Once Were Warriors.
The term “postcolonial,” as Ella Shohat and Robert Stam argue in Unthinking Eurocentrism: Mulitculturalism and the media, is problematic in its relation to cultural identity because its prefix “post” implies two ideas: “both going beyond anticolonial nationalist theory and a movement beyond a specific point in history”(38). They argue that “post” allows for an “all-inclusive formulation [which] homogenizes very different national and racial formations” (38) as well as blurring “the assignment of perspectives” (39). “Postcolonial” is usually associated with “Third World” countries who have gained their independence, but can also refer to “literary productions from all societies ‘affected’ by colonialism”(38). In light of its generality, “postcolonial” does not specify whether it is the perspective of the ex-colonized or the ex-colonizer, though it is usually associated with the former. Thus, Shohat and Stam question the easy way in which the “post” equates and collapses distinctions: “The hegemonic structures and conceptual frameworks generated over the last 500 years cannot be easily vaporized with a ‘post.’ By implying that colonialism is over, ‘postcolonial’ obscures the deformative traces of colonialism in the present” (40).
Unfortunately, not only does the “postcolonial” assume that colonialism and its effects are bygones, but the term also sets up parameters which become very limiting—the work is viewed only in the scope of “postcolonial” instead of relating to other genres, literatures, or concepts. There are norms and expectations for “postcolonial” as a category. Likewise, even the recent celebration of “hybridity,” which supposedly rejects any specific identity, is also ultimately an identity category. As Hogan elucidates: “Hybridity is no less an identity category than ‘authentically indigenous’ or ‘westernized.’ It has the same function in defining and opposing groups and in setting out norms. It simply defines groups differently and establishes different norms” (Empire 4). This is, again, where cognitive science approaches can help us to understand identity categories and move beyond their limiting structure. Hogan insists on differentiating between practical and categorial identity to fully understand how we come to define and group people and things. Categorial identity, one’s self-concept, is “defined by a set of categories, prominently including gender, race, ethnicity, religion, and so on. Categorial identity produces in-group/out-group divisions, with all that they entail” (Hogan Empire 8). Thus, we group and define other people according to our internal hierarchy of categories, which may also include stereotypical properties and ideals. This can work in interesting ways in the film world: the character can be presented as portraying stereotypical characteristics and thus encourage the viewers to categorize him/her in a certain way, but it can allow the director, who knows how the mind tends to categorize, the ability to play with different categories and stereotypes in order to change, or even shock, viewing expectations. Important to note, however, is that “category meanings are idiolectal”: “They are not dictionary or encyclopedia entries, shared by everyone. They are the residue of an individual’s experiences and understandings. While they partially overlap with other people’s category meanings, they are necessarily in part idiosyncratic as well” (Hogan Empire 11). So, there is no guarantee that every person will place a character in the same category but there does remain room for manipulation, especially surrounding widely-accepted clichés.
Practical identity, on the other hand, is “one’s set of habits, skills, and propensities...[P]ractical identity includes everything from greeting practices (what to say, to whom, in what circumstances) to driving a car to professional activities (e.g., teaching or submitting articles to journals)” (Hogan Empire 8). Practical identity is composed of “procedural schemas” or “skills”: “cognitive structures that allow us to do certain things” (Hogan Empire 9). An example would be tying a shoe, once the schema is learned, it is simply “run” without individually thinking of all the small detailed components. Procedural schemas are very cultural dependent and we acquired many of them unconsciously in childhood by listening and watching behavior around us and then imitating it. As well as manipulating categories, filmmakers may also manipulate practical schemas.
Where does this leave authors and filmmakers in pursuit of a contemporary cultural identity in terms of the postcolonial? As I started to suggest above, filmmakers can leave the limits of postcolonial theory and play with stereotyped or previous identity constructions to defamiliarize viewers and/or purport change, as Murray Smith suggests:
Filmmakers—like all artists—make films in the knowledge of the beliefs, values and interest of society, whether their goal is to affirm, to challenge, or simply to defamiliarize them. Using this knowledge, they use stereotypes and other aesthetic devices in order to create particular effects. (64)
Not only can filmmakers play with concepts of identity, they create identities as well. Since we know that a “return to the roots” concept risks fundamentalism, and also that at some point or another outside influences have affected every culture, the task of authors and filmmakers is to create an identity, to create a tradition. Hogan asserts this poignant relationship between cultural identity and authors/filmmakers/artists:
Authors do not simply live in ordinary culture. It is their job to make culture. Literature itself is a part of culture. Literature is one of the primary means by which a culture represents to itself the ambient acts and ideas of daily life…We hardly ever know an actual marriage in the broad and detailed way that we know a marriage described in a novel or portrayed in a play or film. Thus authors encounter the dilemmas of cultural identity as a number of different levels, and with perhaps unique urgency. (Empire 2)
How a culture represents itself and even comes to form a cultural identity is directly reflected in literary and artistic works. Similarly, cultural identity should not be an original essence to be rediscovered, which is implied by the “post” in postcolonial as there being a before and after, but something that is always in the process of changing and developing, as Stuart Hall suggests: “Perhaps instead of thinking of identity as an already accomplished fact, which the new cultural practices then represent, we should think, instead, of identity as a ‘production’ which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation”(392 my emphasis). Hall, like Hogan, emphasizes cultural identity’s construction in the realm of representation, but also stresses the importance of its ability to constantly renew and reconstruct itself instead of being limited to a certain tradition or definition. Cinema and literature, then, can be used to create change and open up an un-limiting space of cultural identity through viewing “cinema, not as a second-order mirror held up to reflect what already exists, but as that form of representation which is able to constitute us as new kinds of subjects, and thereby enable us to discover places from which to speak” (Hall 402). Cultural identity is important but should not be used to restrict cultures to a “Third World” status, thus limiting their authors to “resistance” or “writing back” as most postcolonial theory insists. Their work takes place, like every other author whether First or Third World, in an interrelated humanity, which must take into account its global relationship under the rule of dominating capitalism.
Since an author’s or filmmaker’s work is directly related to creating cultural identity, it becomes therefore related to cultural tradition as well. While traditions are usually thought of as a concrete entity/practice belonging specifically to one group or one culture, traditions do not actually exist outside of individual beliefs and practices. The idea of a concrete tradition is abstracted only from individuals interacting in a community. Hogan compares the idiolectal nature of tradition to that of language: “Thus ‘English tradition’ or ‘Yoruba tradition’ is an abstraction in precisely the same way that ‘English language’ or ‘Yoruba language’ is an abstraction. Moreover, it too is a sociopolitical abstraction” (Empire 228). As there is no “superlanguage” from which English is derived, there is no “supertradition” from which all cultural traditions derive—they exist only insofar as they are practiced by individuals. With this idiolectal view of tradition, “every tradition belongs only to humanity. It is collectively owned” (Hogan Empire 229). As a result, since tradition is owned individually and collectively, it allows for aspects of all cultures to be opened up, giving a more universal sense of literature instead of restricting literature and authors to particular cultures, traditions, and terms such as “postcolonial,” while not erasing or dismissing the relevance of social differences.
Maori culture and contextualization
Given the above argument, texts can be read at a variety of levels—strictly as a story and plot, as a reflection of a specific culture, or as a more thematic universality. Often we engage in any or all of these at the same time since they are not mutually exclusive. The layers in a film or text open up as we possess or attain more knowledge concerning the specific subjects and themes approached in the film. My main goal in this essay is to pay more attention to aspects often overlooked and the way they contribute to emotional engagement in a film, without undermining the importance of the historical context for a film, since this allows a way to unveil other layers of meaning that are culturally-specific and more humanistically universal. In light of this, I would like to briefly contextualize the Maori culture and film practices so that in the analysis of the film Once Were Warriors, it is possible to interpret elements of the film that may have more cultural significance. This adds another layer of meaning in addition to their initial interpretation, but the latter is by no means less valid or important in the way that it affects our emotional engagement simply because it lacks full cultural contextualization.
The Maori are the indigenous peoples of New Zealand/Aotearoa and constitute 9.7 % of the current New Zealand population, about 383,000 people (World Factbook 2003). Known as incredible warriors—which is clearly significant to the film with respect to the title—early Maori used a taiaha as a weapon, a staff with a wooden tongue-shaped blade at the end, which the British invaders recognized as more powerful than the bayonet. Their form of facial tattoos, Ta Moko, was actually carved into the skin, leaving grooves to be painted. Every tattoo was different and served as a marker of individuality and identity, much like a fingerprint. In the film, the eldest son joins a modern gang and marks his inclusion in the gang by having his face tattooed using modern techniques with a traditional-looking individuated Ta Moko design. However, this is a fictive turn toward tradition as the face tattoos were originally reserved for the upper echelons of the tribal party. Before British colonization, Maori tribes fought amongst themselves and intertribal slavery was common. Jake references this in the film when he angrily states that he has descended “from a long line of slaves.”
Additionally, the Maori have very strong religious beliefs surrounding the marae, which originally referred to the open area in front of the meeting house (wharenui) where rituals were performed (Allen 47). The term marae has evolved to include even more at present, as Chadwick Allen explicates further:
Today, marae refers to all the buildings and open spaces in a Maori community facility. Typically, a contemporary marae contains a carved meeting house (whare whakairo) that represents and embodies the community’s principal ancestor, an open courtyard in front of the house (marae area), and a dining hall (whare kai). Rural marae also typically include an adjacent cemetery (urupa).” (47)
As the building inhabited by their ancestors, it is constructed and carved to represent the body of the legendary ancestor “from whom the group that owns the house acknowledges its descent” (Allen 48). Maori are deeply bound to their past, an aspect director Lee Tamahori highlights in an interview: “Maori believe very strongly in the past determining the present and the future…Maori believe that you are only standing on this planet because of your ancestors who came before you. That’s not uncommon to a lot of indigenous peoples” (Sklar). The rural marae plays an important role in the film as one of the ways to embrace traditional culture and reeducate the urbanized, younger generations about their ancestral history.
The decline in traditional Maori customs throughout most of the 19 th and 20 th centuries can be seen to coincide with the British ascent to power in New Zealand. At the beginning of the 19 th century, the British invaded and began colonizing the island. Maori gave these foreigners the name Pakeha, which refers to their white skin, given that the word also refers to a fairy in Maori (Barlow 87). The Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840 between the Pakeha and the Maori, recognizing the sovereignty of the Queen of England. Yet, when the treaty was signed, the Maori were under the impression that the treaty permitted them to retain full ownership of lands already in their possession. Interestingly, the treaty has two versions, English and Maori, which allowed it to be differently interpreted by both sides. The Pakeha used this to their advantage to take over most of the land, causing land wars between the two. In order to receive their independence in 1911 from England, the Maori and Pakeha needed to establish a “coherent New Zealand identity” (Thornley 25). This, of course, did not mean an equal synthesis of the two cultures, but rather Maori assimilation into Pakeha ideals and a “massive erosion of traditional Maori values” (Thornley 25-26). After much of the Maori culture and language had died out, a renaissance occurred in the 1970’s, so that today one in four Maori people are able to speak the Maori language and nearly half of those speakers are under the age of 25 (FAQ’s, maori.org.nz).
Though the Maori language and culture has strongly resurfaced, films about and by the Maori are considerably more limited. New Zealand as a country does not produce more than a handful of feature films a year, but even those do not always involve Maori directors, crews, or casts. In light of this, the production history of Once Were Warriors is of considerable interest here, in order to further contextualize the film and also as an example of a recent financially successful and internationally-acclaimed Maori film.
The $1.3 million film Once Were Warriors was backed by Communicado, New Zealand’s premier advertising agency (Thornley 26). Though the subject matter of the film was relatively culturally specific to the Maori people, who are but a small population, the film was made to make money:
Right from conception, Once Were Warriors was always viewed as a subversive message to be packaged as mainstream product by its financial backers, Communicado…Together with Tamahori, Communicado banked on two audiences: Maori, who would come to see themselves on screen, and Pakeha groups, coming out of curiosity about how the ‘other half’ lived…” (Thornley 26-27)
Lee Tamahori, half-Maori, was chosen to direct the film and it was to be his first feature film. His visual experience up to this point was as a seasoned television commercial director in New Zealand. While the book by Duff enjoyed much success despite being quite critical of the Maori, the vast majority of the Maori had not read it. Thus, in light of appealing to “both sides” and the commercial aspect of film, the screenplay made some changes from the book when adapting it for the big screen. The screenwriter was not Alan Duff but Riwia Brown, who moved the focus from Jake to Beth to “creat[e] a strong woman character who is shown holding the scattered, dysfunctional family together” (Thornley 27). Also, actor Temuera Morrison (Jake) was cast against his usual role in soap operas (Thornley 27). Finally, the cast, crew, and director used for this film were all of Maori heritage—as I mentioned very unusual in New Zealand film production.
Once Were Warriors had an amazing impact in New Zealand. As Kirsten Thompson notes, the film entered the “popular vernacular” of New Zealand: “…cases of domestic violence and child abuse [were] referred to in the national press as ‘warriors families,’ and men acknowledging, ‘I’ve got a warriors problem’” (233). After the film came out, more cases of domestic abuse were reported, woman’s refuges were packed, and kits were created using the language of the film to educate men about violent behavior (Thompson 233). The connection to Beth in the film was a strong one for many women: “I felt every punch that she got. That movie was so real, it was just uncanny” was how one woman was quoted who had been beaten by her husband for 20 years (Pryor in Thompson 233). Clearly, for some local Maori, there was an identification with one or more characters, and this type of engagement surely heightened their reaction to the film.
The film turns a scathing eye to the Maori community and places the responsibility of their contemporary situation on the Maori themselves, not simply portraying them as victims of a white society. Some local critics, like Leonie Pihama, argue that the lack of historical colonial contextualization perpetuates Maori stereotypes and confirms the Pakeha “so that’s how the other half lives” mentality:
Without discussion of the impact of colonization and the acts of violence perpetrated upon our tupuna [ancestors], it is a movie that is unconnected to our historical experience of oppression. For those who know little about our people and our colonial experiences, the representation of Maori people is limited to a violent, abusive face, and the wider realities of our day-to-day experiences remain hidden. (192)
While the film lacks explicit colonial contextualization by containing few scenes involving Pakeha (and those that are present reinforce their positions of power), the effects of colonization can still be seen visually, in the poverty of the housing development among other things.
Clearly it is important to look at how the film may or may not perpetuate negative stereotypes. I do not want to make light of the cultural effects of colonialism. By looking at some of the varying effects the film had on the New Zealand community helps to begin to contextualize the film in order to understand the environment in which the filmmaker was working, allowing us to better understand how the film confirms or works against stereotypes and clichés. The presence of another level of meaning is important when analyzing the film, as it allows us, as spectators outside of the culture, to gain insight into cultural meaning, and how this meaning opens up within the bigger global picture, without simply writing off the film’s representations as the end-all be-all explanatory guide to the culture.
Unlike the more recent Maori film Whalerider (2002), Once Were Warriors presents a vibrant immediacy that attracts the spectator more willingly. Whalerider, which also directly confronts the Maori with their responsibility to preserve and continue their unique cultural traditions, contains many visually pleasing scenes in regard to color, though they do not have quite the same emotional effect as in Once Were Warriors. Instead, the motif of the whale, even with its heavily saturated underwater blue colors, comes across as pretty but rather trite, especially because of the accompanying music. These filmic aspects cue an entirely different tone for the film—one much more subdued. Whalerider also lacks much of the overt violence of Once Were Warriors. While not condoning the violence, there seems to be something more at work in Once Were Warriors within the film’s other aspects, such as color selection and sound, that extracts a stronger emotional response and engages us more readily in the film.
I would now like to look closely at how the ensemble of formal elements in Once Were Warriors—opening credits, color, music (both nondiegetic and diegetic), and character saliency—work together with themes and cultural context to cue moods and suggest a sense of realism that allows for more emotional engagement, beginning with the way the opening credits cue us as to how to read this film.
Setting the mood: opening credit cues
The opening sequence to a film plays a significant role in how we proceed to view the film. The opening sets up initial expectations and also cues us, usually blatantly, to the tone of the film—whether humorous, sarcastic, dramatic, or otherwise—so that all viewers have similar expectations. Almost always the opening sequence contains the credits—another insightful moment as to how the film is presented to us by the implied author. Murray Smith notes usefulness of the opening, demarcating its initial dominance: “Openings have a special function in our experience of narrative, because we base our viewing strategies and expectations on the information we receive at the beginning of a text, a phenomenon known as the ‘primacy effect’” [Bordwell 38] (118). Thus, how we try to read the film is initially cued with the opening sequence. Within that opening sequence we are introduced to an array of aspects which contribute to creating a certain level of expectation and a certain mood for the film via the music, colors, and the characters presented. This level of expectation and the mood move us as spectators toward the desired emotional engagement of the implied author. As Greg Smith stresses, using cognitive approaches to narrative, films provide a variety of “redundant emotive cues” so that “differing audience members…will be nudged toward an appropriate emotional orientation” (116).
In Once Were Warriors, the film begins, as I mentioned earlier, with the oft-cited opening shot presenting the clichéd New Zealand landscape: picturesque, lush, with open space assumed to stretch for miles beyond the edges of the frame. However, when the camera cranes out, we realize that it is merely a billboard advertisement and find ourselves situated in the opposite environment of the ad: a fenced-in, cramped, dirty urban ghetto with dull concrete colors. The sharp contrast contained in this single shot indicates that this film is more than just another film about scenic New Zealand; it uses the juxtaposition in color between the billboard and the ghetto to instill a strong sense of gritty reality. This play with color continues throughout the film and will be discussed in further detail concerning mood, but what is important to note here is its initial move to establish a sense of play with stereotypes and a feeling of harsh, urban enclosure.
After the billboard shot, we are introduced to the actors and characters, whose presentation is augmented by the replacement of the more traditional forlorn-sounding music accompanying the billboard with modern electric guitar and rap music. Beth’s character is the first to appear: we see her pushing a shopping cart full of groceries next to the busy road, which, along with her fond gaze across the highway toward what we assume are her three children in a backyard, suggests a normal maternal role. Her name, Rena Owen, slams in on either side to frame her, accented by a chord on the electric guitar. The guitar and bold lettering, along with the flip of her cigarette and her leather shirt alter the straightforward mother role initially implied, hinting at a certain underlying toughness that corresponds to the neighborhood as she finishes putting on her black sunglasses while the music switches to rap.
Next, we encounter Jake, still hearing rap music, until his name slams in under him with another slightly skewed guitar chord. With the move to the next character, who turns out to be the eldest son, Nig, we get more of the guitar and the added clanking of weight-lifting, but here we do not see the actor’s name. Instead we get a cut-to-black with the title: Once Were Warriors in red on a black screen. The word “warriors” dominates the screen, already suggesting the impending violence with some of the red text splotchy and missing in places, almost like splattered blood. After the title card, accompanied by the now-standard guitar chord, the camera cuts to Gracie reading a story to her two younger siblings—only this time there is neither guitar nor rap music, but rather the opening flute sound, which asserts her difference. The radio music inside the house then carries over with a sound match to introduce Boogie with his delinquent gang of car thieves.
We meet the entire Heke family in the credits, though on first viewing it is not at all apparent who these characters are and what their relationship to one another might be. Nevertheless, the opening credit sequence puts each character into his or her individual context. What I find especially fascinating is the way the images and most of the sound are constructed to flow smoothly into one other, but the black title cards and the guitar chords are very intrusive, so that they violently disrupt the whole sequence by shoving into the images. Not only do we expect some sort of violence with the title involving the word “warriors” and its red graphic text on a black background, the way the electric guitar chords break in is a sharp self-reflexive marker of the construction of the film. The implied author is making us aware of the way these names slam in from the side, announcing a real person and reminding us that he/she is actually an actor. With this happening at the beginning of the film, it sets up an expectation of self-reflexivity for the film—an awareness of its construction—and also an emotional indicator for violence. It definitely seems that the soundtrack frequently intrudes as a reminder of the film’s construction, though often the action involved with the storyline directly distracts us. For example, after the opening, the electric guitar sounds again with the same initial disruptive violence when Jake throws Beth into the bedroom during the first fight. The following shot is a disturbingly allegorical one of dogs ravaging the trash in the early morning outside their house, clearly constructed to highlight Jake’s aggressive bestial behavior.
As we take our initial readings of the characters into the film, it is insightful to see how our opinions of these characters change, how the implied author plays with our initial expectations. Boogie may appear to be a no-good delinquent, cliché of the troubled urban youth, but he turns out to have more poise and heart than most of the other characters. Nig is not all fists and indifferent when he ultimately assumes responsibility as the eldest son to help take care of the family. Jake’s initial lightheartedness quickly changes into a ticking clock awaiting eruption. The opening credits thus present the characters and foreshadow the violence in the film. Yet here, they also implicitly serve to make us aware of its fictionality, despite its strong attempt at realism, to allow us to be more aware of technical effects, such as color.
Coloring the mood
As the opening shot of the film first indicates, the presence and juxtaposition of color can affect how we view the film. After the picturesque scene, we are introduced with lackluster color to the busy urban environment in which the rest of the film takes place. The dull color scheme is continued with the presentation of the Heke house, where I was overwhelmed with the drab, orangey, organic feel. Normally, organic colors present a feeling of warmth, but here they somehow seem hollow and leave me acutely aware of a general mood of desolation in the situation of the Heke family. Remembering Greg Smith’s “redundant emotive cues” to push us toward a particular “emotional orientation” (Engaging 116), the color scheme in the Heke house encourages a certain mood of bleakness in its redundancy, which is echoed throughout the film with each locale, so that even audiences with different backgrounds will eventually be affected by it in similar ways. In fact, director Tamahori had the color scheme set up for aesthetic purposes, using filters to get the saturated feeling: “Even though we were making this film about an alienated urban family, I wanted to keep these very earthy, organic colors saturated into the picture. So through a filtering process which we did in the laboratory in order to enrich skin tones, we got a good, rich sepia look” (Sklar). This is a prime instance of the usefulness of the concept of the implied author. While it is helpful and interesting to know what the director intended and what formal processes he undertook, it is not required that I agree with what he states about the film and that another interpretation is also possible. Though Tamahori may have been going for a “rich” look, I find that the organic colors are empty shells of color which, instead of flaunting skin tones, reflect more so the alienation he mentions and reiterate the mood of economic oppression and barrenness in the environment presented in the film.
While redundant color schemas may be useful, cognitive studies show that, for the limbic system to produce an emotional response, more than one trigger needs to be activated (see Greg Smith and Patrick Colm Hogan). I find that color is already the second (or third or fourth) trigger, since the first few could be the visual poverty presented in the setting: the houses near the highway with fencing, the kitchen’s lack of shiny newness, Beth opening a large beer with a spatula, the appearance of hand-me-down clothing on the kids. All of these clues put in place with the setting initially postulate a feeling of a lower-class environment. Other aural clues are also pertinent, such as the music in the background when Gracie is reading the story, which has a dissonant tone and will be discussed in more detail in the next section. What I am trying to show, however, is that elements such as color are often overlooked in favor of other, more obvious aspects of the film. Yet, color can be very significant in influencing our moods though we may not always recognize it, instead giving the credit to the characters or the setting.
After adjusting to the saturated organic color scheme, certain colors began to stand out in contrast to it, specifically red. For example, when we see Beth wearing a piece of red clothing, the red really seems to pop against the background. Especially noticeable is the tint of the blood when Jake hits Beth the first time: the blood is such an abnormal color of red that it drastically stands out and looks like the color has been altered, most likely in post-production. The emphasis on the color red carries plenty of symbolic associations—among them anger, violence, war, warriors—that could easily carry their significance and meaning into this film for a variety of audience members depending on what they consciously or unconsciously associate with the presence of this powerful color. Thus, for me and perhaps others, a visual reminder of anger punctuates the screen throughout the film with the manifestation of red, reaffirming the physical violence and anger present in the film and cuing me to read the domestic violence as another aspect of the oppressed mood.
Of note, Tamahori mentions in an interview his desire to use colors symbolically in Once Were Warriors: “The only colors that Maori had available to them for hundreds and hundreds of years were black, red, and white… And then, art direction-wise [in the film], we took every primary color out, except red, and just had it black, gray, and brown. It gets into your psyche, that’s the stuff that cinema can do so well” (Sklar). Thus, Tamahori highlights the three colors of Maori culture, which implicates another underlying meaning in the choice of color, one that a global audience unaware of Maori culture would have missed. This knowledge adds another layer of meaning but it does not stop the film from having a large impact visually if left unknown. Films work at a variety of levels for spectators, and with the inclusion of a historical awareness, the color scheme may even accentuate a sense of pride in the historical Maori warrior race and culture. Therefore, color plays an instrumental, often unnoticed, role in affecting spectators and creating an overall mood—much like a similar counterpart often overlooked in creating mood and eliciting emotional response: music.
Due to mainstream cinematic conventions, music is often perceived as secondary or complementary to the privileged storyline. Because of this supplementary position, music is often relegated to brief mention, and then only in relation to a certain character. While aural leitmotifs for specific characters were especially common in early cinema, they remain as only one of the ways music is used in films today. I will discuss how music is used in Once Were Warriors to affect our engagement with the film, or with a specific character, because music works as connected to the storyline, as a character and thematic leitmotif, and as an emotional marker for the continuation of mood.
In Once Were Warriors, a diverse assortment of music is present—singing, traditional chanting, rap, electric guitar solos, and instrumental wind pieces. Some of it is present as diegetic music, which takes place within the fictional film world, and other forms as nondiegetic music, which is not a part of and not recognized by characters in the film world. The diegetic music in this film—the singing, chanting and rap—all work as integral parts of the storyline. The rap sequence in the opening credits situates the film in an urban environment affected by globalization. However, the singing and chanting in the film work to further the plot while also indicating the emotional climate of the film. Not only is diegetic music integral to the plot, but its large quantity in this film hints at an important relation between the Maori culture and music. Like most indigenous cultures, the Maori have a strong oral tradition. The chanting in the film reveals this tradition, especially since it is done in the Maori language. We most often hear it in association with Boogie, the son taken away by welfare, either at the Boys’ Home or at Gracie’s funeral, where he performs a customary chant at this very traditionally-orchestrated ceremony. The chanting here evokes one of the ways the implied author insists upon the theme of modernly embracing traditional roots.
The other form of diegetic music is singing. The singing in this film brings people together and smoothes over the rough edges. For example, when Jake and Beth first sing a duet, we see transparently how much she loves him and how she is no longer upset over him losing his job. Also, in the rental car on the way to visit Boogie—after the awkward and unsettling encounter with Nig—the music on the radio provides the unifying outlet to make them all happy again, singing and driving in the countryside. Though both are continuing the oral tradition of music, they are doing so in very contemporary environments. The singing at the house is closely associated with drunkenness, an escape for these Maori from their not-so-pleasant current existence in urban New Zealand. The singing in the car involves the radio, a contemporary object, as well as the unique experience of a rental car, which reminds us of the Heke family’s economic situation. Even the karaoke in the bar is a modernized version of something traditional, with its prompting cues and microphone. The singing, while part of the plot, also gives us as viewers an indication of the emotional atmosphere, encouraging an appropriate emotional response to the characters.
Even better at encouraging an emotional response to characters, and the film in general, is the nondiegetic music. There are three main examples of nondiegetic music in the film: a flute; the windy, buzzing sound (which I am considering a form of music because of its function in the film); and an electric guitar heard especially at the beginning with the credit sequence. All of these are extra and outside of the fictional film world, though they work to emphasize certain aspects of characters, creating leitmotifs, and add an element of foreshadowing.
We first hear the almost mournful, dissonant flute playing with the opening shot of the New Zealand landscape. Though it sounds rather traditional, it does not entirely complement the image in a positive manner. Its style seems to be mourning the loss of this picturesque simplicity, while it also foreshadows the dissonance present in the film between both urban/rural and modern/traditional—especially when the glaring of a truck horn cuts into the music and the electric guitar begins. After this initial encounter with the dissonant flute, it is primarily thereafter associated with Gracie. We hear it in the background both times when Gracie tells her story about the taniwha, to the kids and to Toot, which hints that like the picturesque traditional landscape, there may be no place in this urban setting for her and her stories. Again, we hear the flute when Gracie leaves Toot’s place after he tries to kiss her. Here it seems foreboding of Gracie’s suicide and the fact that there seems to be no place left for innocence.
Another example of non-diegetic