Whale Rider is the second New Zealand film to feature here at Friday’s Finest. The first Once Were Warriors was a cultural tour de force leaving cinema-goers gobsmacked, including yours truly. I caught Whale Rider again on the Film and Arts channel a little while ago and appreciated it a lot more upon second viewing. It is based on the 1987 novel The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera which my New Zealand blogger friend Bruce in his Chants and Hakas article stated he’d read. The film was shot on location in Whangara, the setting of the novel.
On the east coast of New Zealand, the Whangara people believe their presence there dates back a thousand years or more to a single ancestor, Paikea, who escaped death when his canoe capsized by riding to shore on the back of a whale. From then on, Whangara chiefs, always the first-born, always male, have been considered Paikea’s direct descendants. Pai, an 11-year-old girl in a patriarchal New Zealand tribe, believes she is destined to be the new chief. But her grandfather Koro is bound by tradition to pick a male leader. Pai loves Koro more than anyone in the world, but she must fight him and a thousand years of tradition to fulfill her destiny.
The film presents a glimpse of the Maori society in New Zealand’s North Island and I found it a refreshing way to learn some aspects of it. The story presented here has a lot to do with pride and tradition; the frustration of Koro by the defection of his eldest son, the designated heir of hundred years of a bloodline where only the males can carry the knowledge and the legends from one generation to the next. Basically, it is a simple story very well told with a great performance by the child actress Keisha Castle-Hughes. The film received critical acclaim upon its release. At age 13, Keisha Castle-Hughes became the youngest nominee for the Academy Award for Best Actress up to that point.
Whale Rider sidesteps all of the obvious cliches of the underlying story and makes itself fresh, observant, tough and genuinely moving. The film has also been discussed, and praised, widely within academia. Anthropologist A. Asbjørn Jøn discussed a range of Maori tribal traditions that resonate within the film, while noting links between the release of Whale Rider and increases in both New Zealand’s whale watching tourism industry and conservation efforts. Much of the film is about Paikea doing traditional Maori things women were not supposed to do, like sitting in the canoe and fighting. The cast and crew performed special Maori chants to ward off traditional bad luck that might arise from Keisha Castle-Hughes doing those things.
1. Whale Rider – wikipedia