Whale Rider (review)

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What the World Needs

This is what the world needs: more movies about challenging the status quo and bucking the system and not taking no for an answer when you know you’re right and being true to yourself because you have no choice but to do so. The world needs more movies about girls smashing patriarchal bullshit and claiming their rightful places in society, and fewer films about girls being kooky “nonconformist” by tripping adorably klutzy over their own feet and larding around Europe wearing lip gloss and claiming as their greatest accomplishment in life falling in love with guys with accents.

There’s so much that’s right and yes-finally! about this simple and unpretentious film that even it’s predictable heartwarmingness and uplifting triumph-of-the-human spiritness seem groundbreaking. You want to cheer that it can, actually, be a foregone conclusion that an 11-year-old girl in a traditional culture who fights the notion that tribal chiefs can’t be female will win out in the end, and that neither Disneyfication of a rich and ancient civilization nor soaring songs of anger and celebration, written by Elton John and Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20, will be required. Though you can so easily see how it might have gone, with little stuffed whales in Happy Meals and Pai action figures — for the girls! — and T-shirts and lunchboxes and a Shania Twain version of “Pai’s Theme” and the Whale Rider Interactive Adventure coming to Disney World in Summer 2005 and all of it safe and sanitized and not really rocking any boats lest the stockholders complain.

Witi Ihimaera was the first Maori writer to be published in New Zealand, in 1973, and that right there tells you how far we’ve come, that until 20 years ago, these indigenous people did not have this kind of voice in the larger society in their own country. In 1986 he published the book on which writer/director Niki Caro based this film, and she shot it in the coastal village of Whangara, on New Zealand’s North Island, where the people of the tribe Ngati Konohi believe that their ancestor, Paikea, founded the village after arriving on the back of a whale. The made-up story inspired by the real 1000-year-old legend subverts the traditions of male domination of the Ngati Konohi, and ya gotta give ’em kudos for letting this white woman come in and film her go-girl story right on their sacred ground. Imagine the Pope allowing some uppity American lady director to shoot at the Vatican a movie about a mere woman fighting to become a Catholic priest. That’s some healthy confidence on the part of the Ngati Konohi, in spite of the fear sexist-pig tendencies usually indicate.

See, tribal chiefs are only supposed to be first-born sons, and Pai, named after the legendary Paikea, had the unfortunate luck to be not only a girl but probably responsible, in the eyes of her chief grandfather, for causing the death, at birth, of her twin brother (who’d have been the rightful heir) as well as her mother, driving her father (the chief’s son) away and thereby eliminating the chance for another eldest son in the family. It’s a real mess. Keisha Castle-Hughes, an 11-year-old untrained and previously inexperienced actress from Auckland (and ethnically Maori, as is the entire cast), gives Pai such soulful sorrow that you’ll be blubbering through just about every scene with her Koro, or grandfather (Rawiri Paratene). How does Pai bear the thought that Koro loves her less than he might, simply because she’s a girl? How can he fail to see the inherent talent for leadership in her over the sorry passel of village boys he’s determined to groom for chiefdom?

It’s all real and immediate and not Disneyfied or prettied up: the rural poverty the Ngati Konohi live in, the boredom and the joblessness and the resulting emasculation the men face and the desperateness to cling to this one position of power and the unspoken screaming on Pai’s part that says Hey, I need a feeling of responsibility and purpose, too.

We need more movies like this, movies about the uniqueness of vanishing cultures and the commonalities of all people. And we need to figure out how to encourage everyone everywhere to see them without saturation advertising and tie-ins and merchandising. Because there’s no reason at all why this lovely, magical, radical little film couldn’t be perfectly enjoyable to teenaged couples on dates and soccer moms and mass audiences in Peoria and Des Moines and white-bread suburbs everywhere, where people usually aren’t even made aware to a film’s existence unless it’s been saturation advertised and tied-in and merchandised. It’s probably actually your duty to seek out films like Whale Rider and then tell a dozen other people about them before all that’s left is AOLfoxVivenDisney downloading pabulum directly into your brain.

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