Once Were Warriors 25 year on: Violence, addiction, sexual abuse – what has New Zealand learned?

Once Were Warriors 25 year on: Violence, addiction, sexual abuse – what has New Zealand learned?

Beth. Jake. Grace. Boogy. Uncle Bully.

Almost 25 years ago, five names were burned into the country’s collective consciousness when the film adaptation of Alan Duff’s novel Once Were Warriors debuted in cinemas.

Described by one American film critic as a “relentless sledgehammer of a film” it quickly became synonymous with the brutal reality of lives lived behind closed doors or in front of averted eyes.

In court rooms, academic research papers, interviews with Plunket nurses or conversations with tourists, Once Were Warriors became a shorthand way to talk about socially-taboo subjects such as domestic violence, rape, suicide, substance abuse and Māori disenfranchisement.

Stuff has examined data on the film’s key themes, and talked to people working at the coalface, to see what has, or hasn’t changed over the past quarter of a century.

How many doors hide the bloodied walls of the Heke household? How many women are suffocated by the practical impossibility of leaving an abusive partner?

Is Once Were Warriors still a vivid illustration of the reality behind our country’s benign facade?


In the film, there’s no suggestion that justice for Grace – raped in her bedroom by Uncle Bully who claims it’s the teenager’s fault for wearing a skimpy nightie – will be anything other than the toecap of her father’s boots in Bully’s side.

Indeed, if it wasn’t for Grace’s rough-sleeping friend Toot pressing Beth to read from her late daughter’s diary, the rape may never have been discovered. Nor the catalyst for her suicide.

Statistics from 1994 support Grace’s experience of victims being blamed, disbelieved and feeling eventually isolated.

Rape Crisis reported two thirds of victims at the time, who reached out to the support service, did not go to police.

And just like young Grace, almost 50 per cent were sexually assaulted by a relative – almost half of which were by their father.

Of the 1898 convictions for violent sexual offences that year, three quarters of victims were under 16 years old at the time of the offence. Just under 50 per cent were under 12 years old.

Kathryn McPhillips, executive director of Auckland sexual abuse support service HELP, was working in mental health services in West Auckland at the time and said the film “burst a bubble of pain for so many people”.​

It made people feel it was OK to seek help and, as a result, social services were inundated with people saying “this is my life, help me”, she said.

McPhillips said that demand still exists, thanks in part to the #MeToo movement.

However, victims are often still met with a cold reception when they try to talk with family and friends about their experiences.

For high school students, coming forward about a sexual assault at the hands of one of their peers can see them ostracised to the point they have to change schools.

McPhillips said the statistics on the matter are so outdated, they are of little use.

“That’s actually one of the problems – lack of data,” she said.

A New Zealand Family Violence Clearing House report found that in 2016 there were 2163 reported sexual victimisations against children aged 16 years or under, while Ministry of Justice figures from 2012 show no statistically significant change from 2009 or 2006 in the number of broadly-termed “sexual crimes” recorded.

Paired with anecdotal evidence that reporting rates are still abysmal – around 10 per cent – the picture still looks very grim.

McPhillips said there were tentative indicators that the number of young people who have had an unwanted sexual experience, and child abuse rates, have dropped.

But again there isn’t enough data to come to a sound conclusion, she said.

If they have declined, it would be in line with the US; a downward trend attributed to the success of prevention programmes, McPhillips said, but the film is “absolutely” still relevant.

“I think though, that people wouldn’t be as surprised now,” she said.

“There was this a time with family violence and sexual violence where everyone was out there, wanting to solve it. Now the Government and people like us are. But I don’t know if the world has the same kind of energy for solving it.”


If alcohol was a person, it would play a starring role in Once Were Warriors. Even when not pictured on screen, it’s there in the smashed windows, the children huddled together on the bed, and in Beth’s pummeled face and black eye.

In the film, alcohol is a lubricant for harm – and, as research shows, its true social cost is illustrated in the alcohol-related violence and crime, hospitalisations and side effects, such as babies born with fetal alcohol syndrome.

Once Were Warriors hit screens during a liberalisation of the law around alcohol.

The Sale of Liquor Act 1989 was designed to transform New Zealand into a foodie’s “tourist mecca” and, according to the New Zealand Drug Foundation, it saw the number of retail outlets selling alcohol double, beer and wine appear on supermarket shelves and opening hours extended significantly for licensed premises.

Following that, the legal age for purchasing alcohol was dropped from 20 to 18 years old.

The film also came out as the economic restructuring of the 1980s started to bite and poverty became a very real thing, the foundation’s chief executive Ross Bell said.

“Fast forward, we still have that. And probably what we have got more [of] is inter-generational poverty. So the genesis to those problems in the 80s, continues today.”

Bell said alcohol was still New Zealand’s number one drug problem and in the intervening 25 years, we’ve done a lot make the problems worse.

While we may not see so many of the “booze barns” Jake frequented, alcohol is cheaper and a lot is now consumed away from licensed premises.

“So the drinking at home, the pre-loading, is something we do more of,” Bell said.

“We have also created many more drinks that are attractive to younger people – so alcopops for example is a phenomenon that we’ve only seen in the last 15 to 20 years.”

Some good news, Bell said, was the number of road deaths as a result of alcohol dropped from 225 in 1994 to 90 in 2018.

Bell puts that down to a “broad mix of different levers” being pulled, including changes to the law, effective enforcement, consistent public messaging and education.

“It’s a model we could apply to wider alcohol policy concerns too, especially around hazardous drinking. In fact lots of recommendations to improve the way we deal with alcohol have been made over many years, but successive governments seem to ignore the most important ones,” he said.

For example, the Law Commission’s alcohol review recommended the Government use pricing and tax controls to influence the current cheap prices of alcohol, especially in supermarkets, while an independent review committee recommended the previous National Government put stronger controls in place for alcohol marketing and sponsorship, he said.

The recent Mental Health and Addictions Inquiry made a number of similar recommendations, but the Government needs to act.

“All eyes are on this Government to see if they’re willing to be braver than previous ones,” Bell said.


Not much has changed on the issue, except the type of drugs.

“I think if Alan Duff wrote his book again today, I think we would be seeing meth [methamphetamine] and we’d be seeing sinnies [synthetic drugs],” Bell said.

And then there’s the arrival of the party drugs – MDMA, ecstasy and other stimulants.

Bell said sniffing glue, as Toot does in the movie, still happens in pockets, but it’s less glue and solvents, and more butane.

“And we’ve seen that with the coroner who showed deaths from huffing [inhaling gases] was one of the highest causes of accidental poisoning among young New Zealanders,” he said.

Bell said those forms of substance abuse were largely consigned to the people living on the margins of society in the 90s – and they still are now.

Cannabis is prevalent but its use may well have reduced following a downward trend in cigarette smoking. “There’s been huge successes there,” Bell said.

Although, not so much among young Māori women where smoking is “particularly more stubborn”.

A Ministry of Health report published in 2017 found, amongst other things, Māori women were more likely to be unemployed, look after children without pay and have no secondary school qualification.

The research found the cost of cigarettes was not a deterrent and smoking was seen as a “breather” from family and work-related stress.

But there is no reliable way to add up the social cost of substance abuse, Bell said.

“The real frustration is that we have never captured good data in this country. And, just as we start to collect really important information on a regular basis, the stats people go and change the methodology.”

And while the substances may have changed, the social conditions that often bring about their use remain.

Bell said: “We see that in wider society around increasing homelessness, our absolutely appalling youth suicide rates and pressures on the mental health system.

“I guess the lament there is that we clearly haven’t got on top of providing services to people who need it, in the right parts of the country.”


In the film, there comes a point where a battered Beth says “no more”. Enough.

With only her conviction to defend herself, her voice trembles as she tells Jake he’s not going to hurt her babies anymore.

In 1994, Beth was one of more than 301,600 people in New Zealand – one in seven women – living with violence.

If police had arrived, the confrontation would have been one of the 21,000 domestic incidents recorded or the 9684 cases of “male assaults female” they attended that year.

A Cooper & Lybrand study done at the time conservatively estimated the cost of family violence to be $1 billion annually.

Around 10 years later, an estimate of the cost of domestic violence on society – including health care, accommodation, legal fees, loss of income, child care and law enforcement saw that figure rise to between $4.1 and $7 billion.

And now? New Zealand has the highest rate of domestic violence in the developed world.

Around 41 per cent of a frontline police officer’s time is spent responding to family harm call outs.

Figures from 2018 suggest that’s around 120,000 investigations a year, or more than 300 cases a day nationwide. On one recent Sunday, 17 family harm jobs were logged with police in one lunch hour in Auckland alone.

But with an estimated 76 per cent of family violence incidents not reported to police, can we really evaluate whether the situation today is better or worse?

Police officers in south and West Auckland told Stuff they still witness scenes such as those depicted in Once Were Warriors.

“I would say about half the homes I go to will have damage, especially Housing New Zealand houses,” a south Auckland officer said.

“Almost always there will be holes in the walls [normally fist sized], windows are often broken. These are not always fresh but just never get repaired.”

He said one of the worst things about family violence is that generally, society doesn’t care.

He said: “There are a large amount of incidents, especially violent ones, that happen in broad daylight, in public and maybe one or two people will call 111.

“Most people will try and ignore whatever’s happening, they won’t do anything to stop a woman getting a hiding.”

In the six years he has been an officer, policing family harm had changed from recording who did what to who, to a more holistic, wrap-around approach that includes police’s Whāngaia Ngā Pā Harakeke programme and liaising with other non-government organisations such as national domestic abuse charity Shine to support all parties.

Shine’s general manager Jane Drumm, who has worked in the sector for decades, said there was now a “huge amount more” reported violence – partly because people are more confident they will get help if they ask for it.

“The level of violence that occurs in this country is extremely high. And the extremity of that violence … is also really high,” she said.

But, like Beth, many victims put up with violence for a long time and struggle to leave it.

“Leaving a relationship is, for many women, a quick descent into poverty,” she said.

“Where are they going to go? Where are the houses? Where are the flats? Where are the places they can take their children?

“For some people that we work with, the most important issue they’ve got to face that day is how am I going to feed my kids tonight?”

Drumm was quick to praise police for driving many new initiatives in the area and said new family violence offences, such as a specific law on strangulation that came into law late last year were a “hugely significant” way to tackle such offending.

And now that video recordings made by police at a family violence scene can be heard in court, juries have an opportunity to see and hear the immediate aftermath of an incident.

“They are very powerful,” Drumm said.


Once Were Warriors’ Toot lives in a car huffing solvents. The Hekes’ middle son Boogie ends up in a juvenile detention centre, older brother Nig becomes a patched gang member, while their sister Grace takes her own life after being raped.

But there’s a small glimmer of hope the two youngest children will escape the omnipresence of violence in their family home when Beth finally leaves Jake.

Despite the small world of the film, a report released by child advocacy service Parentline in 1994 showed child abuse was not isolated to any one socio-economic or ethnic group.

The Waikato-based agency said it saw families from every section of the community and of the 366 children aged up to 14 years old it was involved with, 78 per cent were white.

It reported a three-fold increase in phone calls for help in the 10 years that followed, with 12,253 made in 1994 – 68 per cent by children.

Three years later in 1997, Child, Youth and Family, now Oranga Tamariki, dealt with more than 5000 children suffering from serious abuse or neglect.

Then-Children’s Commissioner Roger McClay said at the time that “the level of proven serious physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect of New Zealand children reveals a sorry, shameful situation”.

One of the big differences, between then and now was the effect of methamphetamine or “P” on families, Parentline’s chief executive officer Sue Hardley said.

“For many kids this means that they are officially or unofficially being brought up by extended family, including grandparents,” she said.

“This impacts hugely on children which then affects their behaviours, their schooling … children are often traumatised from very young which has ongoing repercussions.”

Another difference is that in 1994, mothers were listed as the main perpetrator of violence against children, however, in 2019 that switched to men known to the abused child – often their father or father figure, Hardley said.

The ethnicity of children coming into contact with the service has also changed to more than 50 per cent Māori, 37 per cent NZ European and around 1.3 per cent Pasifika or Asian.

Hardley said data was collected and reported more accurately now and attributed developments such as the 0800 FOR OUR KIDS phoneline with an increase in reported incidents of family violence.

Figures released to Stuff under the Official Information Act showed that from April 2017 and March 2018, Oranga Tamariki recorded 13,966 findings of abuse, against 11,519 children.

While the numbers remain high, they were down from the 14,802 findings of abuse recorded at the end of the 2016 financial year.

In the same period, more than 7000 children were recorded as being emotionally abused, 1000 as being sexually abused and more than 3000 as being neglected.

Presented with the figures, Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft called the numbers a sad insight.

“It presents a national and enduring shame that we should never accept in New Zealand, we are better than that. It is profoundly unacceptable.”


Author Alan Duff has said he wouldn’t write the book againbecause Māoridom has progressed beyond Jake “the Muss”. But has New Zealand?

The experts and the statistics paint a muddy picture; thousands of children are in state care, rates of domestic abuse are among the worst in the world and New Zealanders are still very good at abusing alcohol and drugs. One thing that remains the same is that poverty is still a major factor behind these wider problems.

So after 25 years, it appears New Zealand’s problems are the same, but just slightly different.