The opening sequence presents a powerful juxtaposition between contemporary culture and Maori heritage, with a modern hospital birth-scene intercut with mysterious shots of a whale and a female narrator recounting the Maori tale of Paikea: a mythical descendant of the Ngati Konohi tribe who discovered Whangara on the back of a humpback whale after his canoe had capsized off the coast of Hawaiki – the ancient Maori homeland. By Maori tradition, the tribe’s chief must be a direct descendant of the mythical Paikea, with first-born sons continuing this custom ever since. The film opens with Porourangi, eldest son of Koro, the current chief, anxiously supporting his wife who is in labour. She gives birth to a baby girl, but things soon take a turn for the worse as the narrator reveals, ‘When I was born, my twin brother died and took our mother with him’. Unable to cope with the loss of his wife and son, Porourangi emigrates to Europe to pursue a career as an artist, turning his back on his Maori heritage and repurposing his traditional carving skills towards a more international and commercial market. To make matters worse, he names his daughter ‘Paikea’, which angers Koro who sees this as a mockery of Ngati Konohi customs and tradition. Koro had believed that Porourangi’s first-born was destined to be ‘the boy who would be chief’, responsible for leading the community into a new age of prosperity, and he initially refuses to acknowledge his granddaughter.
The story then leaps forward 11 years, by which time Koro has developed a strong, (albeit slightly belligerent) affection for his granddaughter, who he only ever calls ‘Pai’, denying the true power and meaning of her full name. Despite his love for Pai, his passion to restore the tribe through a firstborn male leader is aggravated by her very presence. When Pai asks where her people come from, in what can be considered a key scene, Koro likens their ancestral line to the intertwining strands of a rope he is using to fix a boat motor. The rope proceeds to break when he tests it, which is further indication to Koro that the sacred line of the tribe is broken, that their ancestors have abandoned them in the face of modernity. However, Pai fixes the rope and the motor runs fine, much to Koro’s frustration; frustrated that a young girl managed to repair something he couldn’t, and for what it symbolises, that a female could become chief and restore the tribe. Whale Rider, then, challenges the lineage of male dominance, with Paikea’s plight serving as ‘symbolic indictment of the mores of patriarchy, and a call for greater inclusiveness’ (Sison 2012: 129). Indeed, as Ryan Mottesheard (2003) argues, the film should be understood ‘less as anthropological study of the Maori people, than a universal story of female empowerment’, thus highlighting the film’s global appeal.
Based on Witi Ihimaera’s novel of the same name, Niki Caro’s Whale Rider is a moving depiction of a young Maori girl battling to overturn the patriarchal traditions of her Ngati Konohi tribal community. Marginalised from contemporary New Zealand society, the Maori community is ostensibly struggling in rural poverty and obscurity; rusting car wrecks and abandoned machinery litter the otherwise idyllic Whangara coastline (the northeast region of New Zealand’s North Island where the film was shot), emphasising the intrusion of Western/Pakeha culture and the effects of modernity. Whale Rider, then, brings into question the notion of postcolonial identity within New Zealand, with a renewal of tribal values being presented as the means by which the Maori people learn to adapt to the modern-day demands of urbanisation. Indeed, as Sison suggests, ‘the cultural milieu of Whale Rider is characterised by the ongoing Maori quest for soul and identity in the postcolonial aftermath’ (Sison 2012: 122), and it is these themes, as well as female empowerment, which underpin the narrative.
Koro’s teachings of earlier cultural practices, ceremonies and mythologies help to shore up community identity in the present, with the effects of colonialism being implied as possible cause of the tribe’s present day problems, such as youthful apathy, lack of direction and urban drift (Wilson 2011: 204). Similarly, Smith (2006: 110) suggests the imposition of Pakeha culture and ‘opportunities of modernity’ has created a ‘lost generation’ amongst the Maori people, with several characters portraying the effects of this modern allure. For example, Porourangi uses international travel to escape the pain of losing his loved ones, as well as the responsibility to produce a male son that Koro believes will lead his people ‘out of the darkness’. Porourangi’s unfinished te waka (ceremonial canoe) is left abandoned on the beach, acting as a ‘constant reminder to Koro of his unfulfilled mission to anoint another male heir to tribal leadership’ (Sison 2012: 122). Koro takes it upon himself to arrange another partner for his son, a teacher from Pai’s school, who he believes will deliver Porourangi a male child. Koro is bitterly disappointed when Porourangi announces to his family that he already has a pregnant lover in Germany and will not be returning home with the child, putting an end to Koro’s aspirations. Porourangi offers to take Paikea with him back to Europe, but as she looks out to sea she feels the pull of her ancestors and cannot abandon her heritage. Whereas the majority of her community appear disrespectful of Maori customs and traditions, Pai shows a deep affinity to ‘the old ways’ and demonstrates her passion publicly. Koro’s youngest son Rawiri, meanwhile, has turned to drugs and alcohol as a form of escape, whilst the younger children of the tribe laugh and joke as Maori rituals are performed on the marea, more concerned with football and cigarettes. Even the elder women of the community are shown playing cards and smoking. For Bill Ashcroft et al. (1998: 139), this highlights a form of colonial mimicry, whereby the indigenous population adopts the coloniser’s cultural habits. Furthermore, such a portrayal of a Maori tribe in their contemporary setting highlights post-colonial ambivalence in New Zealand, indicating that Maoris are not fully opposed to the hybridisation that has occurred during the colonial process. Koro’s adoption of Western/Pakeha clothing and his noticeable reliance on modern technologies (i.e. the speedboat and tractor) connotes ‘the complex mix of attraction and repulsion that characterises the relationship between the coloniser and colonised’ (Ashcroft et al., 1998: 12). This relationship is ambivalent since the colonised subject is never completely opposed to the coloniser.
In response to Porourangi’s announcement and the realisation that he has failed to anoint a suitable heir to leadership, Koro gathers all firstborn males from the tribe to teach them ancient Ngati Konohi culture and traditions, with the intention that one of these boys will become the tribe’s next chief. They initially find this strange in comparison to their modern lives but they gradually become more accustomed to Maori customs, especially the taiahi – a ritual fighting stick. When Paikea expresses her interest she is excluded by her grandfather, who is adamant that a woman should not be involved in learning about tribal leadership. This highlights the tensions between the traditional and the modern in Maori culture, with Koro’s stringent following of the tribe’s ancient traditions leading him to alienate his own kin, despite the fact that Pai shows more promise than any of the other boys. It is also implied that Koro had previously alienated Pai’s uncle Rawiri, who, given the fact he was not Koro’s firstborn son, was never considered a suitable leader for the tribe, leading him to lose touch with his Maori heritage. Paikea’s grandmother, Nanny Flowers, reveals that Rawiri was once a champion taiahi fighter, and asks him to tutor Pai. Upon accepting Rawiri undergoes a transformation, immediately feeling ‘at one’ with his ancient tribal heritage:
“This artefact of tradition has an almost sacramental character and seems to immediately recall him to himself, to remind him of not only who he is but who is called to be. Rawiri takes up the challenge with fervour and not only trains Paikea to be the best in the tribe but also recovers his own sense of identity and self worth.” (Smith 2006: 113).
Paikea trains in secret, eavesdropping on Koro’s classes, determined to learn all she can of her ancestral customs. In one scene, Hami, the most promising student in Koro’s school, challenges Pai to a taiahi duel, which Pai eventually wins. When Koro finds out he chastises Paikea, warning her that by tampering with sacred traditions she has shamed her community. Koro’s frustration is plain to see as he proceeds to exclude both Hami and Pai from his final challenge to determine who will become the next chief. He takes the remaining boys out to sea in his speedboat and throws his whale-tooth necklace overboard stating that he needs someone to demonstrate the ‘spirit’ needed to recover the necklace (which symbolises the tribe’s connection to their ancestors). Much to his dismay, none of the boys retrieve the pendant and Koro returns to shore, despondent. Unbeknown to Koro, Rawiri later takes Pai out in the boat, who not only finds the necklace, but also manages to catch a lobster as a present for her grandfather.
Pai sympathises with Koro and prays to her ancestors for help, with a voice-over revealing, ‘They heard me’, initiating the film’s most iconic and emotional sequence. One night Paikea delivers a speech to the rest of the tribe that traces the history of her people and the significance of the Paikea legend, which she tearfully dedicates to her grandfather. Only Koro had failed to turn up; distant cries had drawn him to the beach where a pod of whales lay dying. For Koro, this symbolises the tribe’s contemporary crisis of identity, a loss of spiritual connection to their ancestors. Eventually the rest of the tribe make their way to the shore, with the beached whales igniting in them a communal strength they believed was forgotten as they work tirelessly to lure the whales back towards the ocean. They attempt to move the largest bull whale using a tractor, but it is a problem that cannot be resolved by modern technology. Paikea, realising what she was destined to do, proceeds to ride the large whale, sparking it into life, followed by the rest of the pod. Fearing that his granddaughter has drowned Koro finally understands that it was Pai all along who was destined to be the tribe’s new leader, finally accepting that he must adapt his cultural beliefs. Pai is found alive and the film closes with the whole tribe embracing their Maori culture, celebrating through traditional Maori rituals. What is more, Porourangi has returned with his German fiancé to finish his waka and celebrate with his people. As such, the film does not present a simple rejection of modernity, rather ‘it is the recovery of tradition in modernity, and sometimes against identity, that makes possible the renewal of identity of Paikea’s people’ (Smith 2006: 116). Sison (2012: 134) proposes that this ending follows a particular theological trajectory, with Paikea’s symbolic ‘reincarnation’ having a transformative impact on the community. Therefore, Whale Rider emphasises the benefits of bicultural cooperation, incorporating what Duncan Petrie (2007: 172) describes as a ‘utopian embrace of common humanity as an alternative strategy of dealing with the trauma of the past’.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: New Zealand, Germany. Production Company: South Pacific Pictures, ApolloMedia Distribution, Pandora Filmproduktion. Director and Screenwriter: Niki Caro. Cinematographer: Leon Narbey. Editor: David Coulson. Cast: Keisha Castle-Hughes (Paikea), Rawiri Paratene (Koro), Cliff Curtis (Porourangi), Grant Roa (Rawiri).]
Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, Key Concepts in Post-Colonial Studies, London and New York, Routledge, 1998.
RyanMottesheard, ‘Girl Power: New ZealandWriter/ Director Niki Caro Talks About “Whale Rider”’, IndieWire, June 6, 2003. Available at www.indiewire.com/article/girl_power_new_zealand_ writerdirector_niki_caro_talks_about_whale_ rider. Duncan Petrie, ‘New Zealand’, in M. Hjort, D. Petrie (ed), The Cinema of Small Nations, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.
Antonio Sison, World Cinema, Theology, and the Human: Humanity in Deep Focus, New York, Routledge, 2012.
James K A Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, MI, Baker Academic, 2006.
Janet Wilson, ‘Re-representing Indigeneity: Approaches to History in recent New Zealand Australian Films’, in Alistair Fox, Barry Keith Grant and Hilary Radner, (eds), New Zealand Cinema: Interpreting the Past, Bristol, Intellect, 2011, pp. 197–216.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.