For Actress Rena Owen, ‘Warriors’ Is More Than a Role12 Aug 2014, Posted by in ARTICLES & INTERVIEWS
The 34-year-old Maori has personal experience with the cultural subjugation portrayed in the film about New Zealand’s indigenous people
by Ken Shulman
Los Angeles Times, March 10, 1995
She has become the emblem for the Maori renaissance, a two-fisted earth mother who fights to stem the slide of her people into indigence. For Rena Owen, a 34-year-old veteran actress born to an English mother and a Maori father, New Zealand is not the lush, romanticized wilderness of genteel British farmers depicted in “The Piano”.
“My land was once called Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud,” says Owen, star of Lee Tamahori’s debut film “Once Were Warriors,” which opened last week. The film, an all-Maori production, is a portrait of New Zealand’s indigenous people living in urban squalor in the ghettos of Auckland.
“But that name disappeared with the arrival of the English. And our language disappeared as well. In my father’s day, students were whipped by their schoolmasters if they were heard speaking it. The best way to destroy a people is to eliminate its language. Sometimes I wonder how [the British] would react if colored people turned around and did the same thing to them.”
Based on the best-selling novel by Maori writer Alan Duff, “Once Were Warriors” was shot in just six weeks on a meager budget of $1.2 million. The film was screened at the 1994 Venice Film Festival, and then at the Montreal Film Festival, where it was selected best film and Owen was named best actress. It has been a runaway hit in its native land since its release last August, becoming the highest-grossing film in New Zealand ever, surpassing even “Jurassic Park”.
In the film, Tamahori, a Maori director who learned his craft in television advertising, uses a terse, primal syntax to profile the harsh reality of the Maoris’ disenfranchisement.
“I belong to a lost generation, a generation of people who basically do not know who they are or where they came from,” Owen says. “We grew up with an innate inferiority complex, because we knew that we weren’t nearly as good as our white counterparts. It was my generation that created gangs, that ended up in prison, that slipped deeper and deeper into alcohol and drug abuse. This is the generation you see in the film.”
The Maori were a proud race of warriors that sailed into New Zealand eight centuries ago. Polytheistic, with gods for earth, wind, sky and war, the Maori and their traditions were brutally suppressed after the arrival of the British in the late 17th Century. One of the rare surviving vestiges of their culture is the Taka war dance, which is still performed by the New Zealand All Blacks rugby club before its matches.
Sadly, the majority of the legacy left by three centuries of colonization is far less colorful. Today, the Maori make up 12% of the population of New Zealand, yet they represent a staggering 99% of the prison population.
Owen herself knows something about spending time in jail. Twelve years ago she served eight months in an English prison after being arrested on drug charges in London. It is an experience she prefers not to talk about, except to say that it hardened her resolve to succeed as an actress.
In “Once Were Warriors”, Owen plays Beth Heke, a tormented Maori matriarch who is brutally and repeatedly abused by her violent, alcoholic husband of 18 years, Jake (Temuera Morrison). A mother of five, Beth struggles to create a healthy environment for her children, attempting to spare them a future of poverty, crime and incarceration.
The film has burrowed its way into New Zealand’s national psyche. In the first few weeks after the film’s release, hot lines, women’s counseling groups and anger management groups were inundated with calls, triggered by the intense depiction of domestic violence in the film.
“This is certainly a film about the Maori,” says Owen, one of only six professional actors in the film. “But it’s all too easy to say that these are Maori problems. Sexual abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, and domestic violence are not restricted to the Maori, or even to the poor. This film could be about black or yellow or white.”
Owen is a veteran actress who learned her craft while working in theater and on television in New Zealand and England. She had a small role in last year’s Polynesian epic, “Rapa Nui”.
“This role was a gift for me,” says Owen, adding that the character of Beth offered a view of renewal and regeneration within a context of despair. “I know millions of actresses across the world who would kill for a part like that. There is a huge range of emotions. When we finished shooting, I thought to myself, ‘Oh my, what can possibly come next?'”
Owen’s next project is the role of a transexual in “You’re My Venus”, a joint New Zealand/Australian production to be shot in Sydney beginning in April.
Owen says she’s in no rush to come to Hollywood. “In August I was given five Hollywood scripts, and all of them were bad. Hollywood is not the final destination of every career. And it is not the only place in the world where they make movies. If Hollywood sends me a good script, though, I’ll go. I’ll go anywhere.”
© Los Angeles Times