We Were Dangerous, Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu
Still courtesy of Shelter PR

The Jungian Shadow Looms over Indigenous Drama ‘We Were Dangerous’

The Jungian shadow looms over We Were Dangerous, a dramatic and rebellious drama about moral panic and juvenile and sexual delinquency in 1950s New Zealand.

We Were Dangerous
Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu
Madman Entertainment
8 March 2024 (SXSW)

In his 1959 book Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies, the Swiss Psychoanalyst Carl Jung wrote, “Thinking is difficult, therefore let the herd pronounce judgment!” In Māori director Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu and Kiwi writer Maddie Dai’s 1950s New Zealand state school drama, We Were Dangerous, the judgmental herd is a Christian society that seeks to Christianize, “civilize” and assimilate not only Aotearoa’s (New Zealand’s) indigenous Māori but also “cure” juvenile and sexual delinquency. 

We Were Dangerous is set in 1954, when the moral panic about teenage delinquency reached its height. According to New Zealand’s Manatū Taonga, Ministry for Culture and Heritage website, “In July 1954 the government appointed lawyer Oswald Mazengarb to chair a Special Committee on Moral Delinquency in Children and Adolescents. They established the committee after a teenage sex scandal in Lower Hutt and other high-profile incidents such as a milk-bar murder in Auckland and the Parker–Hulme killing.” The latter refers to the violent murder of Honorah Parker by her 16-year-old daughter Pauline and 15-year-old school friend Juliet Hulme. It was the basis of Peter Jackson’s 1994 film Heavenly Creatures.

Mazengarb’s report cites that the causes of teenage delinquency and promiscuity are working mothers, newly available contraceptives, and young women breaking traditional sexual practices by enticing men who were unable to control their sexual impulses. The report recommends a return to traditional Christian values, which We Were Dangerous’ devout matron (Rima Te Wiata) advocates to the girls in her care.

“When the British first colonised New Zealand, we were offered a great new hope from the motherland. Missionaries of the Lord redeemed the uncivilised. Our institutions and educational facilities are now the frontline for saving the uncultivated mind,” she says. “Our mission is carried forward by three central principles: Christianize, civilize, assimilate. These goals are the beating heart of our school for delinquent girls, where troubled girls are taught the skills for a successful reentry into society.”

Matron’s school is relocated to an isolated island after three students, including the rebellious Nellie (Erana James) and Daisy (Manaia Hall), fail to escape. Another reason is to keep the girls from enticing the local boys after one girl falls pregnant.

When well-to-do white girl Louisa (Nathalie Morris) arrives after being caught in a compromising position with a woman, the three form a tight bond. The matron, with a past she’d prefer to forget, exerts her authority over the girls and preaches the virtues of the Bible. “My purpose is to put them back on the right path. A righteous path: a path to domesticity and redemption,” she says.

The trio’s pushback against the matron’s authority takes a more urgent turn when one of the girls is mysteriously sent back to the mainland after an experimental sterilization procedure goes wrong. The seemingly unbreakable bond between Louisa and her Māori friends breaks when the frightened Louisa embraces the matron’s wisdom and turns on Nellie and Daisy. 

We Were Dangerous‘ fictional drama is based on the period’s attitudes towards women and the Māori, but Stewart-Te Whiu and Dai approach the subject casually. The verbal and ideological hostility towards class and race are present, as is the matron’s physical violence – striking Nellie and cutting her hair. The weighty themes of the ’50s are respected, but Stewart-Te Whiu and Dai don’t feel obligated to show the film’s serious and important subject reverence. Instead, they infuse the drama with humor and exuberance that embraces the inevitable conflict. 

Indeed, We Were Dangerous has one foot in youthful innocence, abandonment, and rebellion and another in the serious and devout adult world. It’s as if there’s a rebellious dream inside the story of three girls on an adventure that leans into teenage fiction and the spirit of Enid Blyton‘s children’s novels, The Famous Five (1942-62) and The Secret Seven (1949-63). 

Stewart-Te Whiu and Dai’s approach might risk alienating some in the audience, but it asks us to adjust our perspective of seeing the Māori and the adolescent girls as victims of a violent and abusive experience. “It is important to me that there is joy and humour in the film, because even in the darkness we find reasons to smile, laugh, and to find moments of love with those around us,” writes Stewart-Te Whiu in her director’s statement, whose father was raised in Owairaka Boys Home. “This was reaffirmed to us when discussing the story with people who had attended state schools. I challenged myself to replicate this in the film; not shying away from the treatment of [the] Maori and women, but also to celebrate our great love, our humour, and our ability to connect.”  

We Were Dangerous provokes despair about the dark part of Christianity’s role in history. This was also present in Peter Mullan’s 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters and Joe Murtagh’s 2023 BBC drama The Woman in the Wall, about the Catholic-run Magdalene laundries in Ireland. Meanwhile, Sugarcane, a 2024 documentary by Emily Kassie and Julian Brave NoiseCat, investigates the Catholic-run Canadian Indian residential school system. Collectively, these films explore Christianity and Catholicism’s “shadow complex”.

It’s not Stewart-Te Whiu and Dai’s intention for We Were Dangerous to be a character assassination piece, but it shows the violence and abuse committed by God-fearing people who talk about the grace and compassion of God yet whose actions contradict those values. It reminds me of something a former colleague said. “God uses good men; evil men use God.” “Evil” is a strong word, but in these institutions, there’s a presence of “caste” ideology in which traditions and values empower people to identify others as inferior. In We Were Dangerous, this mindset enables the matron to approve the ghastly medical procedures that dehumanise the girls and denies them autonomy over their bodies.

The matron isn’t so much an evil antagonist as a lost soul to be pitied. Jung’s writings on the shadow complex are useful for deconstructing this character, whom Christianity redeems. The matron in We Were Dangerous serves as a metaphor for the unconscious mind, where our personality’s unconscious shadow aspect resides. The shadow is made up of the severest antisocial parts of our personality but also what we are embarrassed by and believe is socially unacceptable. 

Jung advocates confronting our shadow, which can positively nourish our conscious self and is essential to achieving moral authenticity. The matron is afraid of her shadow that Christianity lured her into repressing to be socially acceptable. Now, she continues the tradition of repression, advocated by a society that itself has repressed its own shadow, particularly around sexuality and sexual practices. 

We Were Dangerous’ sprightly pace makes the most of its 80 minutes, but it doesn’t play fair. It deceives its audience and leans into exposition to explain itself. While exposition can be labeled lazy storytelling, Stewart-Te Whiu and Dai’s deception is carefully judged to build emotional provocation. This adds to the suspense and celebrates the reverie of youth and its agency against adult oppression and order. 

The film’s ending is like a dream that provokes comparisons to teenage fiction and the spirit of Blyton’s stories. Removed from reality, there are questions about the fate of the characters that cannot be answered. “We Were Dangerous is a film for anyone who has ever felt marginalized when they know in their heart there has never been anything wrong with them,” says Stewart-Te Whiu. The film’s dreaminess complements the characters, who, confronted with the herd’s judgment, must create their own space in a hostile reality.

If We Were Dangerous is sharing its rebellious dream, maybe the characters in their reality are abandoned to a future that will swallow their hope. However, they communicate the message of those survivors that found light in the darkness, who refuse to be defined by the shadows of their past. 

We Were Dangerous’ world premiere occurred in SXSW’s Narrative Feature Competition strand.