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Reviewed by:
  • Whale Rider
  • Esther Figueroa
Whale Rider, 105 minutes, 35 mm film, color, 2002. In English and Māori, subtitled in English. Written and directed by Niki Caro. Based on the novel The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera. <> New Zealand production. Distributed by Newmarket Films, New York. DVD US$26.95; VHS US$14.99.

The film ends, the credits roll, and the elderly male in front of me is crying. He is in a row of friends, the men obviously dragged there by their wives. The one who had in the beginning asked disparagingly what the film was about ("Whale watching?") is now awed into silence. The preteen boy beside me, who had at first watched the film while annoyingly munching on his popcorn and then lying down, jumps up and applauds. As does his mother. As do the teenage employees who come rushing in to clean the theater. Outside, two girls cling to each other in a hug. We all look at each other with benevolence.

Whale Rider opened in Honolulu on 27 June 2003 and stayed through November, past the point when it had been released on DVD. It did not open in an art house or the theater known for showing "independent" films, but instead at the largest cineplex on the largest screen—a place reserved only for commercially viable, mainstream movies. It stayed in Honolulu theaters well beyond the run of all other movies this year. This fact belies the common wisdom that to be successful, a movie must have Hollywood movie stars, avoid complicated subject matter, and stay away from particularity of story, language, or culture—and if it is a story about people of color, it must be told (ie, interpreted for the audience) from the perspective of a white person. Instead, Whale Rider's opening narration begins: "In the old days the land felt a great emptiness. It was waiting for someone to love it, waiting for a leader, and he came on the back of a whale, a man to lead a new people, our ancestor Paikea."

The film Whale Rider was written and directed by Niki Caro. It is based on the novel The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera, which in turn is based on an ancestral story of the Whangara people of the east coast of Aotearoa New Zealand. The film is a story about deep losses, relationships, and healing. The film begins with simultaneous birth and death: the death of a woman and her son, and the birth of a daughter Paikea, who narrates: "There was no gladness when I was born—everyone was waiting for the firstborn boy to lead, but he died, andI didn't." Paikea's grandfather, the chief Koro, comes into the hospital room where his son Porourangi ismourning the loss of his wife and baby son and demands, "Where is theboy?" As Porourangi retracts in horror, Koro simply states, "What is done is done, come home, start again."

Before fleeing his father, Porourangi defies Koro and names his newborn daughter Paikea, signifying her direct line to the foundational ancestor, and establishing her chiefly mana. Chanting over the dead grandson, Koro orders his wife, Nancy Flowers, [End Page 422] to take the infant Paikea away, but she refuses and insists, "No. You'll hold her. You will acknowledge your granddaughter." It is the first of many moments of resistance by his wife. Paikea narrates: "My Koro wished in his heart that I'd never been born, but he changed his mind." And the next time we see them again they are tangled together in love, as at the age of twelve, Paikea rides on the bar of Koro's bicycle—the way he fetches her from school every day. As they ride, she holds onto the carved whale's tooth he wears around his neck marking the fact that he is chief—the position she would inherit if she were a boy.

Whale Rideris a story that combines the deep enduring power of myth—of eternal connections—with very contemporary details. Through repeated visual and aural motifs we breathe in the ancestors—in the forms of whales, the...


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