Whale Rider: Female Empowerment & Cultural Tradition

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“Whale Rider” is a drama film of the 2002, based on the novel of Witi Ihimaera, and directed by Niki Caro. The world première was on September 2002, at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film gained much respect from critics, it went on in film festivals such as Sundance and Tribecca, and gained international recognition. It has a lot of awards through the world: BAFTA Childrens' Award, Best Feature Film - 2003; Broadcast Film Critics Association Award, Best Young Actor/Actress (Keisha Castle-Hughes) - 2004; Chicago Film Critics Association Award, Most Promising Performer (Keisha Castle-Hughes) - 2004; Cinemanila International Film Festival, Special Jury Prize - 2003; Humanitas Prize, Sundance Film Category - 2003; Independent Spirit Award, Best Foreign Film (New Zealand) - 2004; Mexico City International Contemporary Film Festival and others.

“Whale Rider”is a contemporary re-telling of the 1000-year-old legend about legendary first ancestor named Paikea. This film combines elements of history, traditions, depicting them from the point of view of a child, that sees the world not in black and white terms.

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On the other hand, it is a drama about relationship of a young girl and her grandfather.

Heroes and characters

The film ”Whale rider” is considered to be a personal and family drama, showing that families even in the most far away parts of the world have similar relations and personal problems. All People have the same emotions: they upset and cry, they feel happy and laugh. A Maori family, despite their beliefs or rituals, can be just like an American family, or any other one.

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The story takes place in the small town Whangara in New Zealand. Many centuries ago a legendary ancestor named Paikea brought there the Maori people, who still lives there. The myth about Paikea says that he was rescued by a whale, after his canoe was lost in the sea. He rode the whale and founded the Maori people, and from that day the tradition exists: an eldest son is the Chief of the tribe and the leader. Once deep within the ocean, a herd of whales was responding, and when the whales began stranding on the beach, this seemed to be a signal of an apocalyptic end to his tribe.

Until one person prepares to make the sacrifice to save the people...the Whale Rider. “Whale Rider”shows emotional experience of a young Maori girl, Pai, who is the main character and the most bright personality in the film. She struggles to gain the approval of her grandfather and her people. From the beginning, Paikea, or Pai, is a young girl in a man's world. Though she is loved by her grandfather named Koro, who is the Chief of the Maori tribe, she is not accepted as a future leader, and as a person as well. A special attention should be paid to a the concept of shadows in the story, as it has an important meaning. The symbolism from the beginning foreshadows Pai's future as a leader: a close up of the crying baby's green eye mirrors the close up of a whale's eye. So the focus of the eye humanizes the whale and connects the young girl to the animal. As Pai grows older, her defiant character of a leader becomes evident.

Pai herself is interested in the leadership, learning traditional songs and dances, and Taiaha fighting - a traditional stick fighting method used by the Maori men. Pai feels, that she can become the leader, but it is impossible for a woman to do so, and she is given little encouragement by her grandfather. Paikea: “My name is Paikea Apirana, and I come from a long line of chiefs stretching all the way back to the whale rider. I'm not a prophet, but I know that our people will keep going forward, all together, with all of their strength.” Even when Pai becomes rather proficient in taiana fighting, this still does not prove to Koro that she is good enough to be a leader of the people. Koro, who is the Chief of the Maori tribe, is the other important character of the film. The conflict between him and Pai is caused by Koro's refusal to acknowledge Pai as the inheritor of the tradition, Koro is blinded by prejudice, and nobody can convince him that Pai is the natural heir.

First of all, because Paikea is a woman, she is not fit to be the Maori leader. The old Chief is convinced that the tribe's misfortunes began at Pai's birth, and calls for his people to bring their firstborn boys to him for training. He is certain that through a process of teaching the ancient chants, tribal lore and warrior techniques, the future leader of their tribe will be revealed to him. This confidence was shattered when all boys failed in his final test of leadership, they have lost Koro's closest symbolic representation of his faith: the whale's tooth. Koro's eyes, mirrored in these events, portray a great sadness to the film's audience. The characters and relationships are rather complex and intricate, they are developing through the film, and the audience makes a “journey” through heroe's lives.

The most rewarding of these is that of Pai and her grandfather. At the beginning of the film, we see that Koro genuinely cares for his granddaughter, but his disappointment about her gender is evident. As for Pai, all she wants to do is to earn Koro's respect - this point is brightly illustrated in the scene where she gives a speech dedicated to Koro. Though the film has a strong female character, there are still male dominant elements throughout it. So “The Whale Rider” shows deep levels of character development: as we see Koro's great sadness, Nanny's love for the family, and how Pai's world is slowly crashing down around her. Pai is just a young girl in the beginning of the film, and a leader in the end. It is shown that all people have their depth of sadness, yet in this sadness we can find out what truly connects us with those we love.

Problems shown in “Whale rider”

“Whale Rider” is a great example of the problems that many cultures and families are facing around the world. The main social issue that is brought up by the film is the function of the woman in a world controlled mostly by men. The theme of“Whale Rider”is female empowerment - is not unique, but the context in which it is presented is very interesting and unusual. This is a hot issue of many cultures through the world even today, as women try to gain a respectable place by hard working. The movie shows this visually and thematically all throughout the story. It is a film for everyone who wants to learn the story of a young girl, her future and her success in a “men's world”. When the audience is watching the film, they compare their own family experiences with the ones in the story. From this point of view, the film establishes a personal form of communication in the family, despite all cultural, racial, and geographical boundaries. So it may be considered as the film about interpersonal relations.


“Whale Rider” is a unique, untypical and fascinating film. It is not just a family film, just an Australian film - it is a film that can touch the hearts of millions. The film is from New Zealand, though it has many Australian elements, it shows the connection between the land and the native people. The old culture is continuously struggling to keep alive, to keep its people, its unigue traditions and customs, in a quickly changing world, that leaves the past behind. The film shows New Zealanders, as an example for the rest of the world, that the past civilizations and cultures can continue to live on in harmony with today's world.

Updated: Nov 30, 2023
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Whale Rider: Female Empowerment & Cultural Tradition. (2017, Jan 27). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/the-whale-rider-film-essay

Whale Rider: Female Empowerment & Cultural Tradition essay
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