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
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