Thursday, January 29, 2009

Whale Rider

Directed by Niki Caro, released in 2002, adapted by director from a novel by Witi Ihimaera.  

I had watched this movie back in 2004 after I had taken my first film appreciation class and after I had lived with a roommate who had served his mission in New Zealand.  The way he and others described the Pacific Islands really enchanted me and the film class had made me think that I could interpret any movie perfectly.  I didn't do bad, but I sure didn't have the background that I think I needed to get it.

I saw this movie again this last Tuesday after I have been to the Pacific and heard more about the modern Maori condition.  The basic story is a young girl's struggle to both earn her Grandfather's love and fulfill her own potential as a strong Maori, while Grandfather can only see her attempts as a sad parody and curse on tradition, prophecy and his own life.

To appreciate this movie you need to have a pretty good stomach for minor notes, both musically and emotionally.  As with all Polynesian cultures, Maoris think that they have the best singing voices in the world, and I'm sure not a good enough judge to say otherwise, but I love Paikea's (Keisha Castle-Hughes) haunting songs.  While not a musical, the traditions that are trying to be upheld are often sung and leave an often melancholy tenor on the scene.  

I think the best way to get the theme of the story is to understand something of why the Grandfather is feeling the way he does.  The Maori culture was victim to British Colonization like so many other nations, and like other nations, their own culture was suppressed to allow for greater British domination.  Until recently, speaking Maori was illegal (at least in schools), and of course, the native populace has been largely mixed and supplanted by British New Zealanders who have grown up there, along with a healthy dose of Dutch-blood.  

The Grandfather is seeing his land lose it's identity, down to his own son, Paikea's father, and is desperately trying to restore the culture, seeing any difference from the ancient ways as a deviation from the god's methods, which would only further lose the people.  In his struggle he despairs at Paikea's success at the fulfilling the redeemer's role because it means that she is  only becoming more and more of curse for interfering in the traditionally male-based culture, and ultimately, destroying it's chance of returning.

It's easy to see the movie as a gender-based struggle with the most obvious conflicts coming from the fact that she's a girl, and with all the phallic references in the movie, but I think to label it like this is to be as narrow minded as the Grandfather, who was the one who  made it a gender struggle.  Paikea rarely brings up the struggle as a way to prove women, but rather as a way to say that to discredit anyone on an arbitrary trait is to handicap everyone.  In fact, I see her being a girl as a great symbol of change and hope.  The old ways were destroyed, but could still had value in being preserved;  however, they couldn't be brought back to the way they had been exactly, so something new had to happen, but by being through a Maori it was still pure.  Something Old, Something New at the same time.  

This is a largely family friendly film, with a few quick exceptions of language, and if you have problems with old men saying, "Hold on to your dicks." If taken for what it is, it's a wonderful view of  beautiful traditions, and of the need for flexible thinking.  I mean, I got a little emotional.


  1. I saw this movie a few months ago, and I'll admit it, I cried like a little schoolgirl. I really liked it, and actually got about the same message of change/hope for this community that Ben did. I didn't know about the whole culture struggle though. Kudos Ben.

  2. Gender struggles are silly. A woman could never beat a man at anything anyway.