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NZ film case study - Once Were Warriors

One film, two classifications

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'.

The plot

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.

Classification decision

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

Classification Office's RP16 classification decision for Once Were Warriors video (PDF, 95KB)

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.

Other film case studies

Once Were Warriors poster

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

Useful links

Stills from the film

A still image from the film of Jake angrily brandishing a metal stool in a pub
Temuera Morrison as Jake Heke, brawling in his local pub
A still image from the film of Jake violently assaulting Beth, who has blood coming from her mouth, his hands gripping her on either side of her head
The infamous scene of domestic violence in the kitchen where Jake severely beats Beth
A still image from the film of Beth looking angrily at a tattoo'd man - her son Nig
Beth (Rena Owen) and her son Nig (Julian Arahanga)
A still image from the film of a group of men drinking in the pub
Jake drinking with his mates at their local


R13 classification label
R13: contains violence and offensive language (film)
RP16 classification label
RP16: contains graphic violence (video)


Descriptive note
The extra wording on a classification label which warns people of content in the film e.g. 'M: contains sexual references and offensive language'.
Over the top, extreme, unnecessary.