Writing about, "McFarland USA," brought to mind Niki Caro's enchanting film, "Whale Rider." I was delighted for a chance to finally review the film that planted the seed of thought that became Reel Inspiration. (I started Reel Inspiration to promote diverse films that inspire, challenge, empower, and create understanding.)
As I mentioned in my previous review, Niki Caro is drawn to projects from cultures unlike her own. As an outsider and a “pakeha” (a New Zealander of European descent), Niki studied the Maori language for a year before approaching the Ngati Konohi tribe about adapting their beloved book, “The Whale Rider” (by Witi Ihimaera) to the screen. Niki was only interested in doing the story if it was in collaboration with their community. When she met with Maori leaders, she spoke in their native tongue about what a privilege it would be to bring their story to the screen. The tribe elders took special care in studying her previous work and blessed it before starting production.
|Director Niki Caro|
As promised, Niki worked very closely with the community. A Maori adviser was always present during the production. What resulted was a movie that reflected their culture and traditions in a way that they could take pride in.
“Whale Rider,” is a retelling of the Maori legend of their first chief Paikea, the whale rider. Ever since the time when Pai’s (Keisa Castle-Hughes) ancestor Paikea came to Whangara on the back of a whale, the first born son in every generation of her family has become leader of the tribe. Disappointed by his artistic son, Pai’s grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene) sets his hopes on Pai’s twin brother to lead the tribe out of the darkness of the modern world. Devastated by her brother’s death in childbirth, Koro blames Pai and wants her sent away. But Koro’s wife (Vicky Haughton) refuses, insisting that he acknowledge his granddaughter. Raised by her grandparents, Pai bonds with her grandfather over the ancient teachings. At thirteen, she excels at reciting the legend and can hear the whale songs of her ancestors calling her. But her grandfather is so invested in the tribe’s patriarchal traditions that he can’t see it.
The signs are all there. While working on their boat, Koro uses the rope that starts the motor as a metaphor for their family legacy. Each thread that makes up the rope is one of their ancestors. “Woven together they make us strong.” When he tries to attach the rope to the motor, it breaks. But Pai fixes it by tying all the pieces together. Excited, she calls out to her grandfather, “Its working! It’s working!” But instead seeing this as a sign of her gifts as a leader, he sees it as a threat to their culture. Instead of encouraging her tenacity, he admonishes her, “I don’t want you doing that again. It’s dangerous.” (This is akin to fathers who “protect” their daughters while encouraging their sons to take risks and grow.)
When it becomes clear that his son will not give him a male heir, Koro tells him to go and take his daughter Pai with him. But while driving up the coast, Pai hears the whales calling her back. She knows she is needed at home. When she returns, she finds that her grandfather has set up a cultural school for boys in hopes of finding the tribe’s next leader. Her wise grandmother honors Pai by having her lead the welcoming song. But Koro insists that she sit in the back because this is for the boys.
When Kora catches Pai defeating a boy with the Taiaha (fighting stick,) she is sent to live with her uncle. Her grandfather blames her for the tribe’s troubles. He claims the problems started when she was born and now she is making it worse by interfering with the boys’ schooling. He trains the boys to be warriors, but that isn’t what the tribe needs. The tribe needs Pai’s gifts to tie them together as a community, to encourage each of them to use their strengths to benefit the whole.
Creating the character of Pai was an act of love by novelist Witi Ihimaera. He wrote, "Whale Rider," in response to his daughter's complaint that the boys were always the heroes. “Whale Rider” is more than an inspiring movie for girls. It shows us that a father can demonstrate strength by empowering his daughter. And, like the threads woven together to form a solid rope, our community is strengthened when we all share our unique gifts.
Watch the complete movie, "Whale Rider" on Hulu.