Whale Rider, is one of the most stunning and thought provoking films released this year. Director Niki Caro sensitively weaves together realistic storytelling and myth, calling on the mystical qualities of the New Zealand landscape to create a powerful cinematic experience.
With an unobtrusive directing style and remarkable performances from the cast, particularly in the case of newcomer Keisha Castle-Hughes who plays the leading role as Pai, Whale Rider has touched audiences internationally achieving critical acclaim in some of the toughest film festivals abroad.
Whale Rider is inspired by the legend that local Maori were guided to New Zealand by the ancestral figure of Paikea, who swam there on the back of a whale. The story is set in present day and follows the life of a headstrong tomboy, Pai, who believes she is destined to follow in her namesakes footsteps and struggles with the limitations of her culture.
As a final testament to her commitment to the tribe Pai performs the ultimate sacrifice. Koro, Pai’s grandfather and chief, recognises her strength at last and is able to let go of his rigid hold on the traditions of his ancestry and look toward a future that accepts the leadership of a woman to take the tribe forward.
Caro focuses less on the “girls can do anything” angle picked up by the mainstream media and chooses instead to explore the conflicting processes that both Pai and Koro go through in adjusting to the changing roles of women in society, and the acknowledgement of these changes.
Although very specific to Maori culture in New Zealand, Whale Rider holds a strong significance in Australia as it deals sensitively, but very honestly, with the complex issues affecting indigenous cultures in an ever expanding, all enveloping westernised world.
By Nicki Jonas