Traveling through the movies – Whale Rider

Today’s movie takes us to New Zealand. These days when people think of movies filmed in New Zealand, they think of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the more recent Hobbit. Whale Rider was a little indy film, not a big Hollywood production.

It’s about a 12 year old girl, Pai, who wants to buck tradition and be the tribe leader but her grandfather is unreservedly a traditionalist and refuses to teach her any of the traditional warrior ways because she is a girl. Her father has left her in the care of her grandparents and isn’t inclined to take up the tradition either so Pai eavesdrops on the lessons the boys get and gets her uncle to teach her as well. This leads to a falling out between her and her grandfather.

The tribe’s culture is based around the whale and one of the tasks a potential leader must do is dive for a whale’s tooth thrown in the sea by the teacher. None of the boys are successful but Pai is. The ancestor she’s named after was said to have been able to ride whales and after a pod of whales becomes beached nearby, the villagers try desperately to keep them alive and urge them to return to the water when the tide comes in. The grandfather sees their failure as a personal affront to his own failures. Pai finds an affinity with the whales as well and manages to coax one of them back to the water to lead the others and by doing so, Pai eventually proves her worth to her grandfather.

Whale Rider was filmed in a village called Whangara on North Island which is also the village where the novel was set. The scenery isn’t as dramatic as the mountains and lakes of South Island but the reason I enjoyed this movie so much was how it featured the Maori culture. The vastness of the beaches and the area here is lovely in a remote and wild way. I would love to drive around the coast and the mountains of the North and South Islands and find out more about the fascinating culture of the Maori.

There is another movie made in New Zealand featuring modern Maori culture called Once Were Warriors and it’s about an urban family experiencing violence and tragedy.  It’s set in Aukland and you see bits and pieces of that but mainly the lower income areas, not the spots the tourists generally go.  It’s a very hard movie to watch, with brutality and desperation but it’s very good and ends on a note of hope.