Trouble in Paradise

March 03, 1995|By RICHARD REEVES

NEW YORK — New York. -- "Once Were Warriors,'' a film from New Zealand that opened last week in just two small theaters, is a startling and profoundly depressing statement on the human condition everywhere -- a movie about hell in a small place that should be paradise. It makes the most recent serious American movies on race and rage -- ''Boyz 'N the Hood'' being the best of them -- seem like Disney.

And you should read the book! As rough as it is, the film about the life of Maoris today -- descendants of the Polynesian warriors who got to New Zealand hundreds of years before the white man came with his Bible, and guns and rum -- is significantly toned down from the relentless 1990 novel of the same name by Alan Duff.

There are only 3.5 million people living in New Zealand, almost 90 percent of them ''Paheka,'' white Europeans in the language of the Maori, many the descendants of Scots-Irish fundamental Protestants. The ''natives'' make up a little more than 10 percent of the population. They are both the Indians and the blacks of this Paheka country far from European roots -- even Australia is 1,500 miles away.

Twice, in the 1840s and the 1860s, they fought civil wars to try to regain control of the land they call ''Aotearoa.'' Today, 16 percent of the Maori pass university entrance exams, compared with 41 percent of white New Zealanders; and the Maori unemployment rate is 20 percent, compared with 5.5 percent for the whites.

What all that has done to the Maori -- in an extraordinarily benevolent country that has had social security for a century and free public health care for more than 50 years -- is the subject of the film. The director, Lee Tamahori, creates a slice of modern life that is a nihilism of alcohol, violence and hopelessness -- relieved only and not convincingly by a romantic attachment to the warrior past.

You can never underestimate the importance of alcohol in the Christian subjugation of native peoples everywhere. In America, Alexis de Tocqueville watched passive Indians being ferried across the Mississippi to new reservations in the Arkansas territory and asked the man next to him where were the soldiers making them do this. The man, who turned out to be Sam Houston, said: ''Not guns. . . . Brandy is the great cause for the destruction of the aborigines.''

For the Maori, tattoos are a symbol of their warrior past, important in the film and in a new cycle of civil struggle coming to the country. I was there last month on Waitangi Day, February 6 -- the commemoration of the 1840 treaty between the Maori and British settlers -- when Maori nationalists stomped on the flag of New Zealand and dropped their pants to show their tattooed buttocks to Gov.-Gen. Dame Catherine Tizard and Prime Minister Jim Bolger.

''New Zealand's darkest hour,'' said Mr. Bolger, announcing that he would move to abolish Waitangi Day and set a new national ''New Zealand Day'' -- a move approved by 79 percent of the nation, according to polls. (Darkness becomes New Zealand, at least judging by its recent films -- this one, ''Heavenly Creatures'' and ''The Piano.'')

''Once Were Warriors,'' book and film, is certainly an exaggeration, if for no other reasons than that most Maoris are not like the imploding Heke family, and the intensity created by the telescoping of time in art, but it is a smashing symbol of the racial and cultural conflicts that plague the planet.

In New Zealand, Maori activists are shouting ''Paheka go home!'' But New Zealand now is home to the whites, too -- nothing will change that. It is basically a white country, one with a public conscience about a violent and tricky past in dealing with the Maori. I saw ''Once Were Warriors'' in Australia last month and came away thinking, as does Alan Duff, a Maori descendant with very conservative political views, that the best of intentions are producing the worst of results, a broken people turning on each other.

The best and worst example of that is the use of Maoris as tourist attractions, with good intent, I'm sure. It's a job, after all. As you step on New Zealand's soil, you are confronted by a tattooed man, wearing nothing but some cloth over his middle, pounding a lance on the ground, screaming, spitting and rapidly sticking his tongue in and out -- as warriors once did to psych themselves for battle.

You turn away, ashamed -- for him, for New Zealand, for yourself.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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