Once Were Warriors was released in 1994, just as the new censorship legislation came into force and the Office of Film and Literature Classification replaced the office of the Chief Censor of Films.
The 35mm version of the film was classified by the Chief Censor of Films on 28/03/1994 as R13 with the descriptive note 'contains violence and offensive language'.
The video version of the film was then classified by the Office of Film and Literature Classification on 13/01/1995 as RP16 with the descriptive note 'contains graphic violence'.
This 1994 New Zealand film tells the story of a Māori family living in Auckland. Jake Heke (Temuera Morrison) and his wife Beth (Rena Owen) live with their children. Jake is a violent man, who emotionally, verbally and physically abuses Beth. The film depicts numerous scenes of domestic violence, where Jake loses his temper and lashes out at his family. This is contrasted with scenes of the Heke's attempts at a 'normal' family life. The tension between these attempts and the inevitable violent outbursts from Jake builds throughout the film, with tragic results for the family.
The film is directed by Lee Tamahori and has won numerous awards at film festivals around the world.
The 35mm version was classified under the old legislation.
In March 1994 the Chief Censor of Films was operating under the Films Act 1983 (the Office of Film and Literature Classification didn't open until September 1994). The Films Act had different criteria from what is applied to films today under the current legislation.
The 35mm version of the film was examined by the Chief Censor and classified R13, meaning that no one under the age of 13 was allowed to see the film. It was also given the descriptive note 'contains violence and offensive language'.
The video version was classified under the legislation we use today.
By the time the video version was released in 1995, videos and films were being classified by the Office of Film and Literature Classification using the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993 (the legislation which is still in force today). Because the video had different material to what had been classified previously (including trailers for other films, a music video and commentary by actors from the film) it was considered to be a new publication. Therefore the video version had to be examined and given its own classification, rather than just being given the same classification as the 35mm version.
The video was examined using the classification criteria set out in section 3 of the Classification Act and was classified RP16 with the descriptive note 'contains graphic violence'. The RP classification means that you are allowed to see the film by yourself if you are 16 or older, but if you are under 16, you can only watch it if you have a parent or guardian with you.
The following extract from the Classification Office's decision on the video summarises the reasons for classifying this version of the film as RP16:
The feature, Once Were Warriors, presents a graphic exploration of social issues including poverty, unemployment, alcohol, realistic presentations of violence, abuse, domestic violence, sexual violence and youth suicide. These are viewed from a perspective of consequence, both in personal terms, emotionally and physically, and in terms of social repercussions.
The serious and complex nature of the themes explored as well as the emotionally demanding audience response, makes this production appropriately viewed by a mature audience. The complexity of the issues makes adult interpretation and supervision important, due to the trauma which could result via the emotive themes explored. The video recording is likely to be made available for a wide general audience, with such adult supervision and support intact.Office of Film and Literature Classification, 1995
These classifications still apply today.
Classification decisions made by the Chief Censor of Films remain in force unless someone applies to have the decision reconsidered. This means that if someone were to start showing Once Were Warriors on 35mm in cinemas tomorrow the R13 classification would apply. The RP16 classification applies to video and DVD versions of the film.
This film was used in our offensive language research.
In the Classification Office's 2007 research Public Perceptions of Highly Offensive Language, participants were shown a short clip from Once Were Warriors. The clip shown was from one of the most infamous scenes in the movie. In this scene, a party is going on at the house of the Heke family. In the kitchen, one of Jake's mates asks Beth to cook some bacon and eggs. When she refuses, Jake enters the kitchen and tells her to cook the man some eggs. When she refuses and throws the eggs on the floor, Jake severely beats her. The scene features offensive language, which is why it was included in the research.
Many participants in the research were familiar with the film and its violent content. The clip used in the research ends before the beating is shown. However, a lot of the participants commented on the beating itself. They found it hard to separate their knowledge of the rest of the film from the clip they were being asked to think about – they knew what was coming next and therefore were very uncomfortable when watching the clip leading up to it. Many participants also recognised it as similar to things they could easily relate to or had experienced in their own lives.
Participants in the 2007 research discussed whether a New Zealand film should be treated differently from other films. Many believed that New Zealand films are closer to real life, and therefore easier for young people to identify with and potentially imitate. However, they also thought that it had definite artistic and educational merit, in that it reminded and taught New Zealanders about what life is really like for some people:
There again it's life. The sooner we start looking at ourselves and start rectifying from it, we'll start to change. If you just put your head in the sand, it won't change. You've got to look at it, discuss it, get some dialogue going and deal with it.Participant in the 2007 Highly Offensive Language research
Because the participants felt that what was being said and done in the film was realistic, they felt that the offensive language (and the violence) was in context and wasn't gratuitous.
What it's showing is how she survived this and came out stronger, even though he was supposed to be the strong guy because he was such a bully... You have to show the sheer hell that she's gone through and it's not going to be pretty and that's part of the whole movie... It may not be nice but it's not supposed to be nice. It's supposed to be disturbing.Participant in the 2007 Highly Offensive Language research
Find out more about the offensive language research
You'll find analysis of the Once Were Warriors clip on pages 41-44 of the research report.
RP16: graphic content may disturb.
20th Century Fox Film Distribution disagreed with the 'R16 content that may disturb' classification given to the film by the Classification Office and applied to have the decision reviewed. Find out more about 127 Hours
R13: contains violence, offensive language, drug use, and sex scenes.
Initially classified as R16 due to the violent and sexual material, and the depictions of drug use. On appeal by United Pictures this was reviewed and re-classified by the Board of Review. Find out more about 8 Mile
M: contains content that may disturb.
Originally cross-rated PG, we received complaints from parents that their children were frightened by the film. They asked the Chief Censor for permission to have the film assessed using our criteria. Find out more about A Christmas Carol
PG: some scenes may scare very young children.
Originally cross-rated G, we received complaints from parents that their young children were frightened by the film. As a result, the Chief Censor called the film in to be examined by the Classification Office. Find out more about Happy Feet
M: contains offensive language and sexual references.
This film had received its PG rating through the cross-rating process. After complaints from the public, the Chief Censor called the film in to be classified. Find out more about Land of the Lost
RP13: contains violence, drug use and offensive language.
The unusual RP classification is used where a film presents ideas or issues that could challenge younger viewers but might still be valuable to them if they have support while watching. Find out more about Matariki
R15: contains violence and content that may disturb.
The film is about the massacre of 13 people at Aramoana - a tragic event in New Zealand's history - and this depiction of real life events required special consideration by the Classification Office. Find out more about Out of the Blue
R16: contains horror scenes and offensive language.
Members of the public complained to the Classification Office about the film's unrestricted M rating. They felt that the film was very frightening and contained extremely disturbing themes. Find out more about Paranormal Activity
R13: contains violence, offensive language and sexual references.
The "highly offensive language, much of it sexual in nature" in the film contributed to the R13 classification, as did the film's "crassly homophobic sentiments". Find out more about Paul
R15: depicts graphic and realistic war scenes.
This film generated much debate and became a benchmark for NZ film classification. It contains depictions of serious physical harm which are lengthy, frequent, and of a very graphic nature. Find out more about Saving Private Ryan
R13: contains violence and offensive language (film).
R16: contains violence, offensive language and content that may disturb (Blu-ray).
The Blu-ray edition has a higher rating as it also includes a short film, Manjha, that has the theme of sexual abuse. Find out more about Slumdog Millionaire
R16: contains horror scenes.
Members of the public raised concerns about the M rating on the film as anyone, including young children, could potentially watch it. They felt an age restriction would be more appropriate. The Chief Censor called it in for examination. Find out more about The Grudge
R15: prolonged sequences of brutal violence, torture and cruelty.
The Office was inundated with letters of complaint and support over its R16 classification, which had included public consultation. On appeal, it was re-classified by the Board of Review. Find out more about The Passion of the Christ
Assessed only for its moments of barbarity, "Warriors" is something to avoid at all costs. But reserve judgment until this raw, uncompromising working-class saga is over, and you might find yourself unforgettably moved - and grateful for the experience.Desson Howe, Washington Post