Directed by Niki Caro. New Zealand. 2003.

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"The Maori culture that I know is strong and rich and deep and profoundly spiritual and existing in every part of the country (New Zealand). But those aren't the stories that are being told" - Niki Caro

When I heard that Whale Rider was about gender empowerment in an aboriginal culture and had the tagline "one young girl dared to confront the past, change the present, and determine the future", I thought it would be another example of predictable formula entertainment. Surprisingly however, the new film by Niki Caro transcends the limitations of its genre and delivers a genuinely moving tribute to the unique language and culture of the Maori, the aboriginal tribes of New Zealand. 

Based on a novel by Maori writer Witi Ihimaera, it is the story of Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes), a 12-year old girl who seeks to overcome a thousand-year tradition and become the first female to assume the leadership of her people. According to the legend of the Ngati Konohi tribe, their ancestor Paikea founded their village in the 8th century after arriving on the back of a whale, and from that time tribal chiefs have been exclusively the first born male descendant of the ancestral line. 

The film begins with tragedy. Paikea narrates "When I was born, my twin brother died and took our mother with him." The tragedy leaves the tribe without a chief when Koro dies, since girls are not considered to be proper leaders. Pai's father Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), unwilling to endure the badgering by his own father Koro (Rairi Paratene) to produce a male heir, abruptly takes off for Europe, leaving the infant Pai to be raised by Koro and Nanny Flowers (Vicky Haughton), a worldly-wise and quietly supportive grandmother. After ten years have passed, Koro, resigned to the fact that his son will never produce a male heir, begins training local boys in the rituals and tasks associated with being a tribal chief. Koro is obstinate in defending the traditions of the tribe, believing that "you don't mess around with sacred things", and excludes Pai from the training sessions because she is a girl. Pai, however, furtively watches the boys go through their rituals, learns the language, songs, and history of her people, and readies herself for the opportunity to prove to Koro that she is the only one with a mystic connection to the whales. 

As a test to see who is ready to become chief, Koro takes the boys out on his boat and throws his symbol of leadership - the tooth of a whale overboard, asking the boys to retrieve it. Though no one passes the test, Koro remains determined not to back down on his commitment to finding a male heir, keeping the film at a high level of tension through to its gripping conclusion. Though Whale Rider is at times heavy-handed in its portrayal of Koro's intractability, it succeeds because of its honesty and the natural ability of Keisha Castle-Hughes to make Pai's character come alive. It is her willingness to overlook the shortsightedness of her elders and remain focused on her purpose and the needs of her people that makes the film a memorable experience. Whale Rider is a simple story, and a rare delight for children and parents, inspiring us to get in touch with the traditions of our own culture.

Howard Schumann
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