Whale Rider is a Story of Courage that Stands the Test of Time

Niki Caro’s delicately laced film of belief, bravery, and true leadership honours the importance of Rangatira (Chiefs) in Māori self-determination while negotiating the inherent limitations of patriarchal succession by making a young girl the true figure of hope.

The legendary Paikea, the ancestor arrived on the back of a whale. A chief who brought the light to guide the Māori hapu. In a hospital a firstborn son in a line of chiefs, Paikea’s twin, died on the day of her birth and took her mother with him. Paikea should never have been given that name according to her grandfather Koro Apirana (Rawirir Paratene), and her great sin is to be a girl.

Born into grief, Pai seeks a way to be seen. For her father Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) who left on the day she was born to come into her life and stay for more than a few moments at a time. For Koro to see Pai as wholly herself and not as an echo of the lost potential of her brother. Her father loves her, but he has learned that he will forever too be a disappointment to his rigid patriarch. Porourangi is an artist showing his work all over the world – he will never be a chief. He has also fallen in love with a German woman and is to be a father once again. He is spreading the seeds of Māori culture in a manner Koro refuses to acknowledge.

Pai is given the opportunity to leave Aotearoa with Poro, but she feels the call of the whale and must return. What she returns to is even further marginalisation from Koro. And although he too loves Pai in his own way, the rigidity of how he views the sacred knowledge belonging to men means that Pai is emblematic of the loss of his line.

Koro sets up a school to teach the first-born sons of old ways of the ancient ones. A school Pai is not allowed to attend because the presence of a girl or woman will violate Tapu – a great disrespect to the ancestors. In Koro’s blindness he can’t see that the darkness he feels descending on the iwi is not solely the loss of Māori identity to colonialism, but an inability to grasp that perhaps there are things beyond his understanding, and real-world problems he is refusing to address.

Hemi (Mana Taumaunu) one of Pai’s friends is favoured at the sacred school by Koro until he accidentally fights Pai with a Taiaha (a traditional Māori weapon). The boy who had no other healthy male attachments is cast out by Koro for what he perceives to be disrespect and weakness. None of the boys live up to his expectations for a new chief and he falls into a depression. The question his wife, Nanny Flowers (Vicky Haughton) puts to him is who could live up to his expectations? Not his firstborn son, not his second son Rawiwi (Grant Roa), not Rawiwi’s generous partner, Shilo (Rachel House). And all the while there was a child waiting with grace and patience wanting to learn everything he had to teach.

Pai’s affinity with her sacred heritage goes beyond her connection to Whangara coastline. It is deep within her. She sees Koro for what he is – a man losing his light, but a man with great knowledge. In Pai’s eyes Koro’s rei puta and quest to pass it down a patrilineal line is making him forget the many threads which build a community. Mana (spiritual power) is not a finite resource to be held by a few. Pai doesn’t blame her grandfather and far too often bears the brunt of his dissatisfaction. Doubt creeps in at times but the deep knowledge that she is connected to the ancestors means that such a connection can be shared with a hapu who desire it.

For the twelve-year-old girl who looks out on the waters with shining eyes and hope, the beaching of the whales is one Tapu that she almost dare not cross. Both Koro and Pai called to the whales – he in frustration that no boy found his rei puta, she trying to find comfort for them all. Yet even with the whole community gathering around, the whales will not turn, and they are dying. It is the grand whale (the Paikea) the pod follow and if that sacred creature is not saved, none can be.

When Pai is rebuked again for having caused enough harm by Koro she realises that it is time she speaks directly to the great ones of the ocean, and like Paikea her great ancestor, she gently climbs upon its back and leads it into the ocean. Unafraid of death she has found her purpose – to protect what is sacred with love.

Niki Caro’s film differs greatly from the source novel which although similar in themes was not as intimate with Pai’s perspective. Keisha Castle-Hughes is the first-person narrator, and we see the world through her vulnerability and search for identity. Few coming-of-age stories blend so seamlessly indigenous identity through spiritual belief and balance the reality of a world where such belief has been devalued. If assimilation had not been the policy for so long from white New Zealand and Māori beliefs hidden and fractured, is it not possible that sexism within Māori culture would have been less prevalent?

None of the women in the film are shrinking violets – especially not Nanny Flowers and Shilo and not the cigarette puffing Maka (Mabel Wharekawa). The women in the film are far from secondary. A simple glance from Nanny Flowers ensures a row of young men sits down and behaves. If Koro had asked Nanny Flowers or Maka what a chief needed to be at the turn of the millennium instead of assuming it was to be adhere entirely to unbending tradition he might have seen the treasures he was forgetting. The younger son who was reliable, gentle, and loved by his community. The bright woman who loves him and loves Whangara. The young boys who want to learn Māori traditions but must still be young boys.

Whale Rider is a story of courage, but courage is multifaceted. Courage is Rawiwi knowingly defying his father and teaching his young niece to wield a Taiaha while reminding himself of his own strength. Courage is Pai making it all the way through a heartfelt speech dedicated to what is an empty seat. Courage is riding the whale, but it is every step that led to that point. Courage is Koro admitting, finally, he was wrong about his granddaughter ending his line – she is the continuation. The one who will strive through inclusiveness to see the hapu go forward all together with all their strength.  

Director: Niki Caro

Cast: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Cliff Curtis

Writer: Niki Caro, (Based on the book by Witi Ihimaera)

Producers: John Barnett, Frank Hübner, Tim Sanders

Music: Lisa Gerrard

Cinematography: Leon Narbey

Editing: David Coulson

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Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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