On the east coast of New Zealand, the Whangara people believe their presence there dates back a thousand years or more to a single ancestor, Paikea, who escaped death when his canoe capsized by riding to shore on the back of a whale. From then on, Whangara chiefs, always the first-born, always male, have been considered Paikea's direct descendants. Pai, an 11-year-old girl in a patriarchal New Zealand tribe, believes she is destined to be the new chief. But her grandfather Koro is bound by tradition to pick a male leader. Pai loves Koro more than anyone in the world, but she must fight him and a thousand years of tradition to fulfill her destiny. Written by
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In the old days, the land felt a great emptiness. It was waiting. Waiting to be filled up. Waiting for someone to love it. Waiting for a leader.
[child birth scene]
And he came on the back of a whale. A man to lead a new people. Our ancestor, Paikea. But now we were waiting for the firstborn of the new generation, for the descendant of the whale rider. For the boy who would be chief.
There was no gladness when I was born. My twin brother died, and took our mother with him.
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Truly a film for the entire family to enjoy together.
If you have lost your belief in magic, perhaps this is a tale you need to hear about a film you need to see. It is the story of a thirteen-year-old girl, a class clown, a show-off. When strangers invaded her classroom one day, she continued to do what she was used to doing, playing the fool, thus attracting the strangers' attention.
The strangers cast her as the lead in a film. Though it looked like a small film to begin with, it turned out to be an international blockbuster. Then one day, she read in the newspaper that she had been nominated for the most prestigious acting award in the entire world. Her first acting performance had catapulted her from obscurity to the winner's circle, in competition with Diane Keaton, Samantha Morton, Charlize Theron and Naomi Watts for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
Keisha Castle-Hughes is the youngest person ever to be nominated for best actress by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Anna Paquin, discovered by the same casting agent, won an Oscar in 1993 for The Piano, but that was for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Yet she was not the youngest. In 1973, Tatem O'Neal won for Paper Moon at the ripe old age of ten.
So, we have established that fairy tales can still come true, but not without the proper vehicle, and I do not mean a pumpkin drawn by white mice. The vehicle in this instance is a very carefully designed and orchestrated film. And where do great films start? With the writer(s), of course.
Another fairy tale? Witi Ihimaera is the first Maori writer ever to have published both a book of short stories and a novel. He says he was sitting in his New York home one day overlooking the Hudson River when he saw a whale breach the waterline. A whale in the Hudson River? Mr. Ihimaera took it as a sign.
Inspired by stories of ancient tradition that streamed into his mind, over the next three weeks, Mr. Ihimaera wrote The Whale Rider. It is this one work of his that the Maori community accepts as being most representative of their culture, and the novel that became the backbone for the screenplay for the film Whale Rider (co-written by Witi Ihimaera and director Niki Caro).
Maori legend tells of a great man, Paikea, who came many ages ago riding o n the back of a whale and landed on the shores of a new world. He left word that someday another great whale rider would be born to lead the Maori people.
The film begins with a scene in a hospital of a young woman giving birth to twins. The boy is stillborn. With her last breath, she whispers to her husband, `Paikea, Paikea.' The remaining girl child is blessed with that name as the mother dies.
Paikea's father, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), crushed by the loss of his wife, departs his homeland, leaving Paikea in the caring hands of his parents, Koro and Nanny Flowers. `Pai' grows and becomes strong in the teachings of her people, yet she hears an inner voice as well.
Koro, her grandfather, is the chief of his people. When he sees that his son will not return, he begins to train the local boys in the ways of leadership. Pai believes that she could become the leader of her people, but her grandfather, though he loves her, rejects her.
Pai cannot be daunted; she is tougher than any of the boys. She hides around corners and eavesdrops as the boys are trained, learning the lessons, dance, movements and traditional ceremonies of her people.
Once he feels they are ready, Koro takes the boys out in a boat on the ocean and here he removes the carved whale's tooth, symbol of the chief, from around his neck, tossing it into the water. Though they try, none of the boys is able to retrieve it.
Here, the film takes a turn, one that is somewhat unexpected, and one that sets this film apart from the run of the mill. As part of a school pageant, Pai has written a work in honor of her people and has asked her grandfather to attend. It is this performance of the young woman that tests her skills as an actress, and is certainly one of the most touching moments in the film.
The rest of the film does not hinge so much on whether Pai's grandfather attends her performance or not. Something else occurs. Seven whales have beached themselves on the shore. Paikea has called the whales and they have responded to her call. As the people of the village struggle to help the whales return to the ocean before they die, Koro's other son shows him the carved whale's tooth.
`Which of the boys got it?' Koro asks. His son tells him it wasn't one of the boys. `It was she,' he says, pointing to Paikea, now sitting on the back of the biggest of the whales.
There is a very big difference in a film made for twelve-year-old girls and a film about a twelve-year-old girl, especially one on the threshold of womanhood. This is a film about traditions, about beliefs, about growing up, about magic, and about love.
Director Niki Caro transcends ordinary film making with Whale Rider. The film played to standing ovations at both the Toronto and Sundance film festivals, and with good reason. It is not a film that tells us anything is possible. It shows us. It does not sink into despair over the disappearing way of life of the Maori people. It shows us that any group of people, any tribe or village, any nation, can survive and even prosper if we rely on what we feel in our hearts.
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