When fiction is too close to truth…

Years ago I saw a film which exposed the darker side of life in a poor neighbourhood.  I recently watched it again, having first read the book, and it’s had a much bigger impact this time.  If you want some kind of insight into poverty, alcoholism, [domestic] violence, social norms and the difficulties for anyone trying to get out of the endless cycles which perpetuate the lifestyle, I really recommend Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors to you.  But be warned, it’s very uncomfortable reading / viewing.

I’m not saying that this is how domestic violence or alcoholism pans out for everyone.  But both the book and film do a good job of making you aware how it can be for some.  It’s rooted in a poor Maori community in the fictional Two Lakes, where unemployment, fighting and gangs are the norm.

Jake “The Muss” Heke, played by Temuera Morrison (known to millions as Jango Fett from Star Wars) is a big guy, handy with his fists and quick with his temper, who struggles to deal with feelings. His wife Beth, played by Rena Owen, is on the receiving end of countless beatings but loves her man.  She tries to keep her family together, though her eldest son is wooed by gangster life, another son is taken into care and her eldest daughter well, let’s just say she has a very hard time of it.

For me this described the sheer hopelessness that some people may feel with their situation.  When there’s little gainful employment around, and when unemployment and other benefits pay almost as well as the few jobs that are around, it’s easy to see the attraction of staying home and drinking your life away.  There’s also some insight afforded into how someone can stay with their partner despite the worst violence being inflicted on them, because they love them or because they’re scared of the consequences if they leave them.

For Jake, if he can’t understand something or see any value in it, he lashes out.  His temper is on a very short leash, and he sees violence as being a natural part of being a man.  For Beth on the other hand, she tries to do her best for her children, but struggles to do that without upsetting Jake and “earning” another beating.  She makes a concerted effort, manages to stop drinking for a while and saves money – but then falls off the wagon; at that point, things really take a turn for the worse for her.

The book has a more hopeful ending than the film, but both it and the film are very brutal in parts, and make for uncomfortable viewing / reading several times.

The scary thing as far as I can tell is that, though the story is very hard hitting, and though there are undoubtedly families who aren’t going through the turmoil depicted for the Hekes, there are those who are faring even worse.  Help for them is very difficult to provide, because those being subjected to that level of violence on a regular basis will not be able to seek help when they need it, and in some cases may have developed something akin to Stockholm Syndrome and will not want help.  I think that it’s incumbent on all of us in society to be vigilant and to help if and when we can – providing it is safe for all concerned.

If you need more information on what help is available (in confidence) – or if you want to donate some money to help provide assistance – please go to http://www.refuge.org.uk.  (I appreciate that in other countries there will be other organisations which can help.)

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