Rena Owen | Film on Abuse Takes New Zealand
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Film on Abuse Takes New Zealand

12 Aug 2014, Posted by in ARTICLES & INTERVIEWS

Film on Abuse Takes New Zealand
by Edward Guthmann
San Francisco Chronicle, March 3, 1995


 

In New Zealand, where Hollywood exports normally dominate the nation’s movie screens, a kiwi film called “Once Were Warriors,” directed by New Zealander Lee Tamahori and based on a novel about a contemporary Maori couple, is breaking box-office records.

“We left `The Piano’ in the dust and we slayed the dinosaurs,” says Rena Owen, the film’s star. Now in its 10th month, “Warriors” has outdistanced “Jurassic Park” as the New Zealand box-office champ. It’s also been a smash on the film-festival circuit, winning 18 international awards, including a best-actress citation for Owen at the Montreal Film Festival. It opens Friday in the Bay Area.

Barbed-Wire Jungle

For film-goers who associate New Zealand cinema with such European-flavored art films as “The Piano,” the raw-boned, muscular “Once Were Warriors” should come as a surprise. Set in the shantylike fringes of contemporary Auckland, where underclass Maori families survive in a graffiti-and-barbed-wire jungle, it’s a tale of domestic violence, alcoholism and one woman’s devotion to her children.

Beth Heke (Owen) is the world-weary mother of five, and Jake (Temuera CQ Morrison), her sexually dynamic husband, is a working-class brute who smacks the missus around when he loads up on beer. One son’s joined an urban gang and is covering his face with tattoos; another’s been sent to a juvenile detention center.

During a breakfast interview at this mountain ski resort during the recent Sundance Film Festival, Owen, 34, talked about Beth, and described the impact that “Warriors” has made throughout New Zealand society.

Prickly, impassioned and tough, Owen carries herself with a straightforward, don’t-mess-with-me bearing. At one point, when she didn’t like the direction the interview was taking, she simply snorted and said, “F– boring question.”

Later, when asked why Beth remains with Jake when she’s obviously intelligent and strong, Owen set the record straight: “She’s not strong! You see, you’re deceived, you’re fooled. If she was strong she wouldn’t be there. She’s only tough: It’s bravado, it’s exterior.”

When the reporter refers to “Warriors” as a cautionary tale about domestic abuse, Owen is equally contrary. “That’s so limiting, so narrow. It’s a love story, about a family, about a woman’s journey to save her children.”

Still, Owen says “Warriors” has created a huge awareness of the spouse-battering problem in New Zealand.

`Part of Psyche’

`It’s become a part of the nation’s psyche. I mean, two weeks to a month after it was released, the help lines were inundated with callers. Women’s refuges, anger management groups, men-against-violence groups were all overflowing. The film gave people license to talk about a taboo subject in their lives.”

Wherever it plays, Owen finds, “Warriors” touches a deep nerve. “I’ve had men crying on my shoulders after the movie, and I’ve had women crying on my shoulders. It’s changed people’s lives. You couldn’t ask for more. I mean, I really do feel spoiled as an actress.”

In Costner Epic

Before “Warriors,” Owen had just one film under her belt, “Rapa Nui,” the disastrous Easter Island epic that Kevin Costner produced and Kevin Reynolds (“Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”) directed. All her lines were all cut, and the film bombed, but Owen refuses to knock it. “It was a good warm-up for me.”

The In the middle child of nine children, Owen was reared by a British mother and a father, now deceased, who was three-quarters Maori.

Originally a nurse, she moved to London in the early ’80s, took a detour through that city’s nocturnal party scene, and spent eight months in prison on drug charges — an experience that she credits with giving her “inner strength” and an extra edge as an actress.

On her release, Owen auditioned for a play about women in prison, got the part and built a stage and TV career playing a variety of roles. It was only when she returned to New Zealand in 1989, she says, that her mixed-race background became a handicap.

“If I went up for a Maori role,” Owen recalls, “they’d say, `You’re far too European-looking,’ because I’m very pale. If I went for a European role, they’d say, `Oh, but you’re part Maori, aren’t you?”’

Carries the Film

Then came “Warriors.” Critics have credited Owen with carrying the film — and the actress, for one, isn’t about to disagree.

“I feel very lucky that Lee chose me, which isn’t to diminish the fact that I worked my a– off. I know I made that film in a way. And I don’t say that egotistically. I’ve worked a good, hard 12 years on my craft, made a lot of sacrifices in the theater. … This is my payoff.”

It’s also a tough act to follow. “After I’d done Beth,” Owen says, “I felt like I’d done the ultimate. I wondered, `Well, what’s next?’ ” And I feel very lucky that my next role is equally as juicy and challenging.`

In May, Owen flies to Sydney, Australia, for “You’re My Venus,” a futuristic gender-twister by New Zealand director Stewart Main (“Desperate Remedies”). She’ll play Coco, a male-to-female transsexual and nightclub performer. “It’s a fantastic script. It’s gonna be fun: lots of fabulous costumes, wigs and makeup. It’ll be really nice to have a glamour role. In `Warriors,’ the only makeup I wore was when Beth gets beat up.”


 

TM © 2004 Hearst Communications Inc.

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