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Niki Caro’s Whale Rider – An analysis in relation to journeys Essay

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The inner journey is one which involves the hurdling of psychological barriers, as well as cultural and social obstacles, rather than just a physical trek. The novel Things Fall Apart (1958) by Chinua Achebe and the film Whale Rider (2002) by Niki Caro both address the overcoming of emotional boundaries, while following the progress of the main characters. Issues such as cultural differences and gender equality are presented by the composers through the clever use of devices appropriate to the medium, while using the post-colonial context to accentuate these issues.

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Similar to Things Fall Apart, the film Whale Rider by Niki Caro explores the breakdown of Maori culture in post-colonial New Zealand. It follows the journeys of Pai, a young girl, and Koro, her grandfather, who both seek to uphold and preserve the Maori tradition, which has been negatively influenced by the European culture. During the film, Pai transforms from an unwanted child to the new village leader, while challenging the Maori customs through her curiosity, for example when she learns the sacred art of the taiaha. Koro, who disapproves of her actions, smashes a cup in his anger. Koro’s wife, Flowers, reprimands him, saying, “You might be the boss out there, but I’m the boss in this kitchen”. Caro is addressing the gender barrier which exists in the Maori culture, an obstacle which Pai overcomes in her journey.

Despite being reprimanded by Koro, Pai still retains great love for him, as seen in her speech on her ancestors, where she dedicates her words to Koro. The initial long shot places emphasis on Pai, while the camera is positioned at a low-angle, suggesting that she has gained authority and leadership. This scene symbolises one of the many emotional hurdles she has had to overcome in her inner journey. Moreover, her catharsis can be related to Okonkwo’s moments of compassion, thus highlighting the similarity between their journeys.

Similar to Okonkwo, Koro progresses on a journey, beginning at the height of power, with Caro using several symbols to signify this, such as the whale tooth. The use of sombre music and close-up shots of Koro in the scene where he loses the tooth emphasises his sorrow. In the following scene, Caro employs dark lighting to highlight Koro’s melancholy, while he strokes the staff, symbolising that it is his last shred of authority. Pai’s voiceover informs the audience on Koro’s plea for help and indicates a shift in power and authority as Pai begins to assume her role as leader, “But they weren’t listening, so I tried”.

Koro’s discovery of the whales allows him to undergo an epiphany and continue on his journey. Caro has positioned the event during the night, with its dark connotations enhancing the negative atmosphere of the scene. Furthermore, Koro’s staff is washed away, symbolising that he has lost all of his power. Koro later realises the error of his ways and acknowledges Pai as their leader, “Wise leader, forgive me. I am just a fledgling new to flight”. Koro’s epiphany is thus one of the greatest differences between the two texts, as he is able to surpass the greatest obstacle in his journey and move forward, whereas Okonkwo is unable to change, leading to his death.

Works Cited:

“Whale Rider”. Directed by Niki Caro (2003). [Film]”The Whale Rider”. Ihimaera, Witi (2003)

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