A Triumpant Film about Love and
Jason D. Martin
Thousands and thousands of films have been produced throughout the years about love. The vast
majority of theses films have only the most rudimentary understanding of what love is. The extremely
compelling film, Whale Rider is one of those few movies which truly captures the emotional complexity of
love; more specifically, the love between an eleven year old girl and her grandfather.
The film takes place in a small Maori community on the east coast of New Zeland. This small village is
dominated by a single unifying legend, that their people are descendants of Paikea, the Whale Rider.
According to the legend, Paikea rode a whale from Hawaii to New Zealand and fathered a new tribe
there, a tribe that still exists to this day.
The society built on this legend is deeply entrenched in its patriarchal ways. Males supposedly led the
tribe from the very beginning and many of the characters in the film see this as the only way things should
be done. For a thousand years this system appears to have worked.
Pai, played expertly by Keisha Castle-Hughes, an eleven year old girl who lost both her mother and her
brother at birth, is the only descendant in the line of Paikea. As a girl, her grandfather, Koro, the tribe's
Cheif (Rawiri Paratene) overlooks her as a potential leader. Instead he begins training the boys of the
tribe to take his position, even though it is clear to everyone that Pai is best suited for the role.
The complex relationship between Koro and Pai provides a fantastic window into the complicated world
of love and emotion. Koro blames Pai for her gender. He blames her for the loss of her brother and he
blames her for the slow ongoing decay of the tribe's unity. Though at the same time he loves her deeply,
and for Pai there is no other person in the world more important than her grandfather.
The incredible performances by Keisha Castle-Hughes and Rawiri Paratene dig deeply into the concepts
of tradition and love. These emotionally charged actors whom most people have never heard of before,
interplay with one another expertly, developing characters whom we both care about and cry for.
Niki Caro, director of Whale Rider, brings Witi Ihimaera's 1987 book to life through the use of small
concise scenes staged before grand landscapes and ancient traditions. She has developed a truly beautiful
film which explores the larger issues of women and their role in cultural change while holding onto the
heart of a story about love and conflict between a man and his granddaughter.
The year 2003 was a banner year for independent and foreign film. Tightly written and shot movies like
Whale Rider only make this more apparent. The big U.S. studios could learn a lot about how to make a
movie about love from Niki Caro and the cast of this excellent film.
1 Hour 45 Minutes