"Whale Rider"
Director: Niki Caro
Annie Reid

Coastal Maori in Whangara, New Zealand, claim a line of descent from Paikea, the mythical first man, whose canoe overturned near the shore. His cries for help were answered by a whale, who carried him to shore, forever connecting the destinies of whale and tribe. Tribal leaders for millennium have been the eldest sons of eldest sons, a line of direct patriarchal descent from Paikea himself that is rudely stopped in the opening scenes of Whale Rider. Heir apparent Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) loses his wife in childbirth, along with their newborn male son. The surviving twin is an unwelcome girl.

"She's of no use to me," says her grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene), the tribal elder. But his wife, Nanny Flowers, played by the radiant Vicky Haughton, sees in Pai simply a child who needs love, beyond the burdens of tribal destiny. Rather than use such melodramatic events as an early set piece, director Niki Caro takes the high road and handles the deaths quickly and suggestively, a storyteller getting the necessary background information out of the way so that the real story can begin. And the real story here belongs to Pai, played by the remarkable eleven-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes in her debut performance, as the unwelcome girl-child. Caro's handling here sets the tone for the rest of the film, a delicate balance of realism and fable, that never veers off into the maudlin mysticism or political didacticism that you fear it might.

Koro and Granny Flowers are left to raise Pai after her father, unable to bear his grief or expectations of his father, flees to Europe. But thanks to the subtlety of the script and the stoic dignity of the performances, this is a story without villains. Koro adores the girl despite himself. But he's simply incapable of seeing her as the embodiment of the line of Paikei, so he searches for the destined leader amongst the baffled pre-teen boys of the tribe. Like millennium of daughters and granddaughters before her, Pai both defies Koro, and tries everything she can to win him. Pai clearly has the stuff of leaders: she's powerfully intelligent and emotionally strong, with all the cunning and courage that Koro seeks to drum into the village boys, who invariably fail to meet his other-worldly expectations. What makes Whale Rider so effecting is that Pai's story is told entirely without didacticism. We don't want Pai to succeed because she ought to, because we want to swipe a mark for our team on some cosmic chalkboard, we simply watch Pai fall into her destiny just by virtue of being who she is.

Caro and cinematographer Leon Narbey domesticate the wild beauty of the New Zealand coast rather than exoticize it. This is not the pristine, otherworldly New Zealand of the Lord of the Rings, with ents striding across the horizon, but simply home, a place where primal power is simply part of life, not a vacation from it. The film was shot entirely on location in the Maori village of Whangara, where writer Witi Ihimaera, on whose novel the script was based, was born and raised. Local Maoris round out the supporting cast.

Whale Rider succeeds precisely because the self-consciousness we've come to expect from such material -- a white filmmaker telling a story of an indigenous people in crisis, a story of adolescent female empowerment -- is entirely absent. There's none of that excessive cinematic punctuation, the sweeping music or close-ups of determined faces used to underline the obvious, that we're so used to in Hollywood films.

Whale Rider isn't entirely unpredictable, but only in the sort of ways you want it to be, in the same way that your longing for Cinderella's comeuppance is ultimately satisfied. How satisfying it is to remember that it's not always the responsibility of stories to tell us how things are, but to ask questions about how things might be.

-- Annie Reid

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Copyright Web del Sol, 2003

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