Whale Rider is a film that is both old and new at the same time. The film concerns the plight of Paikea, a twelve year old Maori who was accidentally born a girl. Everything would have been okay if she were a boy.

        Paikea's family traces its history back to the original Paikea who rode from Hawaii to New Zealand on the back of a whale. Since that time, the first born male descendent of Paikea's family has become the leader. But this Paikea is a girl and her grandfather, Koro, is displeased, to say the least. The film follows Paikea in her struggle to make her Grandfather realize that she is capable and ready for the task she was born to do.

        Although this story might sound simplistic, Whale Rider is far more than another feminist film about women breaking through insurmountable barriers to fulfil their dreams. Yes, Paikea's struggle might be familiar to Middle Class feminists who have witnessed similar emancipation in various arenas. Yet breaking thousand-year-old traditions is slow going at best, especially when tied to deeply seeded religious belief. Paikea has to prove to her grandfather that she can do anything a boy can do. To do that she has to go to extraordinary lengths.

        What emerges as most important in this film is the quiet wisdom of Paikea, who knows that deep within her she has the ability, the skills, the wisdom, and the desire to lead her people. There's also quiet brilliance in the acting ability of Keisha Castle-Hughes as Paikea.

        About a decade ago, I was stunned by a film called "Once Were Warriors," a powerful and disturbing view of urban Maoris and their struggle for identity in the modern world. In the end, their only refuge is tradition.

        Tradition plays a strong role in Whale Rider, too. Paikea's predicament is that in order to uphold tradition she must bend it without breaking it.

        The scenery of Whale Rider is splendid. Filmed on New Zealand's wonderful coastline, the beauty of the shore is counterbalanced with the poverty of the Maoris. The strength of their tradition is readily apparent, and although we don't really understand why the old ways are to be upheld, there is a multi-generational recognition that it must be so. The most striking and generally best known Maori tradition, indeed one that represents all of New Zealand, is the haka, or war dance, which is featured in the movie. The Haka is impressive, frightening, and exciting.

        Whale Rider is an incredibly slow moving film. Let me repeat, slow. Although the protagonist is a twelve-year-old girl, the film should not be mistaken as a film for kids. Whale Rider is a ponderous and moving film. However, it will only appeal to those who can sit still for one hundred minutes. And it's worth every minute.

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