Whale Rider
directed by Niki Caro
(Columbia TriStar, 2002)

Paikea "Pai" Apirana is a 12-year-old Maori who meets all the qualifications for tribal leadership except one.

She's a she.

To make matters worse -- at least as far as her tradition-bound grandfather sees it -- she's named after the founder of her tribe, Paikea, who, legend has it, rode to New Zealand on the back of a whale.

But things are not good for the Maoris in present-day New Zealand. Their young are leaving the ancestral homeland and adopting the ways of the modern world. They're turning their back on their traditions.

Pai's grandfather, Koro, knows what the village needs: a prophet. And he's determined to find him -- underline him -- at any cost.

That's an especially hurtful blow to Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), who has been raised by her grandparents since her mother died giving birth to her and her twin brother, who was stillborn. Pai loves her grandfather (Rawiri Paratene) deeply. You need no more proof of this than the scenes in which he gives her a ride home from school on his bicycle.

But Pai wants admission to the process of finding the next Maori prophet, and she will not be denied. That makes her part Rosa Parks and part Susan B. Anthony, with a bit of Joan of Arc thrown in for good measure. She's willing to fight with the boys (and win), defy her grandfather (and live to tell about it) and ultimately do what has to be done when her tribe's symbol, the whale, is in life-threatening danger.

Whale Rider is a story that works on many levels. It's a powerful domestic drama, focusing on the day-to-day turmoils and triumphs of Pai's extended family: her grandfather; her grandmother (Vicky Haughton), a modern-day Maori Wife of Bath; and Uncle Rawiri, who despite his skills was passed over for leadership because he wasn't first-born.

It's also a hard-nosed look at the conflict between tradition and necessity. At what point should a community be prepared to abandon -- or at least modify -- the code which has served it well for centuries?

Whale Rider is an uncommon tale of valor, a dark story set in a bright landscape. It's beautifully acted by everyone involved, most notably Castle-Hughes as the would-be leader and Haughton as the devoted and wily grandmother who's not afraid to take charge when things get out of hand.

It's also beautifully photographed, showing a side of New Zealand you don't get to see in Lord of the Rings. It's everything the travel brochures say and more. Should the story fail to interest you, you can simply watch the scenery pass by.

But most importantly, Whale Rider isn't afraid to wrestle with difficult questions: Is there a time when people must be prepared to set aside or modify the system that worked for them for so long? And why is the system breaking down? Is it something they've done? Or something they refuse to do? Paikea Apirana will gladly answer all those questions for you -- and more -- if you just give her the chance.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 13 March 2004

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