In Jane Campion's The Piano (1993), New Zealand's aborigines represent the dark, liberating force of the unconscious. In Lee Tamahori's Once Were Warriors (1994), a Maori woman, reeling from an abusive relationship and alienated by her urban lifestyle, finds salvation in her native roots. Like many indigenous groups, the Maori have been displaced, and as evidenced by these two films, their identity is woven into the thick fabric of colonization. As they rediscover their unique legacy, the world will come to know them not as Maori, as the name given to them by the colonizers, but by the names they call themselves. Whale Rider, a film by Niki Caro, a white New Zealander, represents a fledgling reclamation of that heritage, a chance for the Ngati Kanohi and other indigenous New Zealanders to speak in their own voices.
The Whale Rider, according to an aboriginal creation story, was Paikea, who arrived in New Zealand on the back of a whale in search of a home. In the Polynesian archipelago, paikeas are tiny crabs that resolutely cling to the shore during a storm, and to many indigenous groups Paikea is known as a forbidding sea god. In all cases, his name is a symbol of determined survival. In Caro's film, Paikea's heir is Pai, an 11-year-old girl. When the movie opens, Pai's divinity is known only to her ancestors, the whales. Koro, the seigneurial chief of the Ngati Konohi--and Pai's grandfather--knows only that he lacks a scion and that his people will be without a leader when he dies. Girls cannot be heirs to the Whale Rider.
Whale Rider is based on a book by Maori author Witi Ihimaera, which Caro adapted. This is the filmmaker's second feature; her first, Of Memory and Desire, won critical acclaim in her native New Zealand. Produced for slightly more than $2 million, it nevertheless lives up to its ambitious goal of capturing the spirit of an aboriginal legend. Caro's direction imbues the film with great warmth and emotion, and her all-Maori cast, amateurs and professionals alike, give finely nuanced performances. Her Pai, Keisha Castle-Hughes, was plucked from a classroom, as were all of the children in the film--none of them have acted before. Adult leads Rawiri Paratene (Koro), Vicky Haughton as Pai's grandmother, as well as other family members, are portrayed by professional actors, many of whom appeared in Once Were Warriors and The Piano. Paratene was in Rapa Nui.
In the new consciousness that Pai represents, Caro defines a paradigm for a different sort of leadership, one that clashes with Koro's strongly patriarchal model. Whale Rider is both about the spiritual domain of the Ngati Kanohi and about the growing consciousness in the world that hierarchies must be vanquished. Confronted with her grandfather's myopia, with his unwillingness to recognize her puissance, Pai simply showers him with love, compassion and companionship; she is unequivocal in her belief that Koro will finally be able to draw upon the wisdom he possesses as a descendent of Paikea. Pai's actions are those of an enlightened being, of a person who knows her place in the world. For Pai, power is a thing to be shared. She smashes hierarchies, just as she shatters the classic notions of leadership.
When Pai talks to the whales, when she retrieves her grandfather's whale tooth--the symbol of his authority--or when she wields the staff of male power to trounce an opponent, Caro doesn't turn the music up. She doesn't punctuate the scene with sentimentality. She relies on the strength of her script, the sublimity of good acting and on the probity of a film that seeks to express, sometimes quite humbly, the great spiritual wealth of an aboriginal people. Whale Rider is a joyful film, an affirmation of inner wisdom, and an acknowledgment of the enlightened telos Pai so gently manifests.