Whale Rider is a contemporary fairy film, which depicts our celebration to our spiritual bond together with our natural environment. In particular it shows the celebration of our spiritual bond with the ocean, and its creatures the whales. It has its basis on a Maori legend, transcends local space and time. The film evokes concerns as to the relationship that exists between human with the natural world. It also depicts the role women play in the spiritual traditions as can be seen in the story of Pai (Keisha Castle Hughes) who is eleven years old. The tale takes place within the heart of Maori tribe.
It is filmed on authentic tribal property in Whangara on the east coast of New Zealand North Island. There is participation of the Ngati Konohi elders and other members of the tribe. Niki Caro who is the screenwriter lived within the tribe before the film was released (Farrell, 299-300). He created a respectful and exuberant depiction of a story that is unique. From the beginning of the film the viewer is immersed in Pai’s world, with active imagination that she has, her child like realm and also the ageless wisdom, which corresponds to the call of ancient whales.
This is what draws her to be able to fulfill her destiny. Her destiny has its roots in conflict and there is demand for intuitive wisdom, visionary actions and also a brave wisdom to be able to accomplish this destiny. Her mother and her twin brother passed away during childbirth. She was named after Paikea who was a legendary ancestor who arrived in New Zealand carried on back of a whale. Pai father left his community with great grief and feeling incapable to offer a son who would continue succession of chiefs. He starts a new life by undertaking a course in fine arts in Germany.
Pai is taken care of by her grand parents. In the process there is a strong bond that is formed between Pai and her grandfather Pako. The grandfather watches her and realized that she had great interest to change the traditional ways (Reinhardt, pg 10-11). The grandfather has the aim to preserve the succession of the tribe and makes an appointment of a male to replace him. Despite this Pako has to make struggles in order to keep the tradition of the society alive. There is social and spiritual crisis in the society. There is also disintegration of the community because there is no one to succeed him in the society.
In order to be able to revive the ancient lore he starts a school where boys are taught native teachings on martial arts. Girls and women are not allowed to attend this school. However, Pai breaks this traditional because of the irresistible force by her many attempts to participate the classes which were intended to be attended by male warriors. The hopes by Pako to find the next leader weakens as all the boys fail in their final test. Pai is protected by her grandmother because of her rebellious character. The grandmother recognizes her inborn affinity with the ancient myths that existed in the society.
There is a beautiful scene which depicts the wise woman and the girl sitting gazing on the ocean. The ocean is lit by the radiance of the full moon (Rountree, pg 98-100). This shows the mysteries that women have in their spirituality and also reflects the special bond that women have with the moon and the sea. All through the film the ocean looks as an animated entity shimmering in rich shades of blue, grey and turquoise. It reflects the sky, the moonlight, sunlight a mediating body that connects the people with their spiritual origins.
The whales and the ocean depict the fusion of nature and spirit. Therefore, when a group of whales is washed near the shore their destiny is metaphorically connected with the survival of the tribe. As can be seen from the film the conservatism and rigidity of the male dominated traditions makes the tribe to be disintegrated. Even with the support of his people Pako is cannot save the whales. There is mourning of the revered creatures and tribes mythical lifeline. There is no one in from the tribe who dares to envision what is to come in future.
The luxurious photography which is taken underwater and enhanced by digital effects and models together with the energizing rhythms of performance, editing and sounds depicts the transformation of Pai into a whale rider. Pai’s body works together with the ancient creature. His soul makes communication with creature’s awareness. She is able to awaken the dying whale ride ion its back and guides the herd to go back to the depths of the ocean. She entrusts her fate to the ocean. She does not fear to die and she is guided by an instinct and insight beyond time.
The whales and the ocean responds by bringing Pai back to the shores of the ocean with the tide. There is a new leader who has been born and there is also beginning of a new era. Whale Rider provides a powerful message of hope and watching this film provides a healing experience. It is a unique cinematic vision which gives an impression to the creative potential of the female spirit. The film depicts the theme of female empowerment in an ordinary way but the way that the context in which it is depicted is unique. Just like many tribal societies the Maoris are patriarchal.
In this society the thought of a female leader is not thinkable, and also goes against the traditions of the society. The film reveals what might happen if a girl appear to have been talented with mystical capabilities of becoming a leader or a chief in that kind of a society. The film provides a more positive point of view showing that despite the fact that change is necessary it is not supposed to destroy culture and tradition of a society. Pai aim is not to destroy the customs and traditions of the society which have existed for more than one thousand years but to reshape it and continues with the same traditions and customs. Leonard, pg 15-22).
The film looks like a study of sociology but this is only its background. The film is uplifting as it shows a girl who defies any odds to be able to achieve her goals. There is use of humor in order to keep the tone of the overall film light although there are some moments of deeper heartfelt pathos. The relationships and characters in the film are three dimensional. The most rewarding relationship in this film is that of Pai and her grandfather. This is shown especially at the start of the film where we see that the grandfather has genuine care for her granddaughter.
For the daughter all what she wants is to earn respect from the grandfather. This is depicted as she gives a speech dedicated to her grandfather. Keisha is just as wonderful as Pai. This is because she shows unflagging spirit and great determination. The afro mentioned speech is the best scene shown by the actress. She presents the speech in an amazing way and even sheds tears. Koro is depicted as a stern and humorless man but not a villain. He is depicted as a man of strong values who cannot let go the rigidity of his upbringing (Reinhardt, pg 10-11).
When Koro starts a new school in order to supplement the secular education of the young boys, Pai wishes to join the school too but she is rebuffed harshly in her attempts. She shows depth of character as she simultaneously quest for equality. She is also aware that her grandfather would not be willing to make her acquire her desires because of his strong attachment to patriarchal values. Her close relationship with her grandmother who lived a life that is universally recognizable to Americans provides warmth and support to Pai in her quests for equality (Leonard, pg 15-22).
The film has is thrilling as it unfolds seamingly with Maori music and rituals which bridges the spoken language. Whale Rider never becomes a saccharine because it is partly a straight tale and also partly a gripping mystical fable. Just like in many modern films the music and the Maori songs complement but do not compete with the dialogue which is a welcome change in films. The film whale rider has a different and a more powerful approach. In the film there are no whites and there are only children t-shirts and some music which comes from a boom box that suggest the encroaching force of the majority who had control (Rountree, pg 98-99).