Whale Rider (PG)

Nov 10, 2004
Cranbrook Film Society

Female empowerment is not an unusual theme for a film; the context of it in Whale Rider is. Like many tribal societies the Maoris are patriarchal, and the concept of a female ruler, if not unthinkable, goes against tradition. Whale Rider, based on the novel by Maori author Witi Ihimaera, postulates what might happen if, in seeming contravention of religious custom, a girl appears to have been endowed with the mystical abilities of a chieftain.

The Whangara people live in a village on the eastern coast of New Zealand, a place they have inhabited for more than a millennium. Legend says that their demi-god ancestor, Paikea, arrived in New Zealand on the back of a whale. Since then the first-born son has always been the Whangara chieftain – until now. Pai is the lone survivor of a birth that claimed the lives of both her mother and twin brother. Her grief-stricken father, Porourangi, fled the island for Europe, leaving his daughter in the care of his father and mother, Koro and Nanny Flowers. Koro is bitterly disappointed, since it appears that the bloodline of centuries has ended with his immediate family. He cannot bring himself to consider that Pai, the firstborn in Paikea’s bloodline, might be the rightful chieftain – because she is not a male.

The majority of the story takes place when Pai is about 11 years old. She spends most of the film trying to prove herself to her grandfather, who refuses to consider her as anything more than a disappointment. He begins to teach all the first-born males in the village in the “old ways,” hoping that one of them will show the courage, strength and fortitude to take over the Whangara’s leadership.

Although change is necessary, it need not destroy culture and tradition. Pai’s role is not to destroy a custom that has held true for more than 1000 years but to re-shape and continue it.

Screenwriter/director Niki Caro is not a Maori, but she went to great pains to ensure authenticity including hiring Maori advisors, indigenous extras and filming in the actual place where the book is set.

The story is rewarding and uplifting; the coming of age story of a girl who must defy the odds to achieve her goals. There is enough humour to keep the overall tone light, although there are moments of deeper, heartfelt pathos. There is affection between Pai and Koro, but he maintains a self-imposed distance. Early in the film we see that he genuinely cares for his granddaughter, but his disappointment about her gender colours his actions and perspective. All she wants to do is earn his respect, a point that is heartbreakingly illustrated when she makes a speech dedicated to him.

Keisha Castle-Hughes is wonderful as Pai, showing the character’s unflagging spirit and boundless determination. Rawiri Paratene portrays Koro as a stern and humourless man, but not a villain. He is an individual of strong values and beliefs who cannot escape the rigidity of his upbringing. This is as much the story of Koro’s growth as it is Pai’s.

The spectacular New Zealand setting makes the perfect backdrop for the film’s blend of realism and fantasy.

Niki Caro | New Zealand | 2002 | 101 minutes | PG