Until I viewed Whale Rider I had yet to see a decent story about the Maoris. The who? Exactly. Until this film, I’d bet that most people didn’t know that they are the native peoples of New Zealand. They are believed to have migrated long ago from an area close to Tahiti. According to legend, one Maori chief fell out of his boat and rode instead on the back of a whale.
Whale Rider is the story of Paikea (Keisha Castle–Hughes), a young girl who is herself descended from a long line of Maori chiefs and named for the one in the whale riding legend. Her twin brother, who is to one day inherit the title of chief and carry on the Maori traditions in the local community, dies in childbirth along with their mother. Paikea’s grief-stricken father, who refuses to take over the chiefly duties as is his birthright, runs off to Europe to pursue his career in Maori art.
As Paikea grows and becomes aware of her lineage, she is perfectly willing and capable of carrying on the duties herself. But her grandfather, Koro (Rawiri Paratene), strictly adheres to the old tradition in which no females are allowed to be leaders. Despite his forbidding, Paikea secretly learns all the tribal chants and warrior skills that her grandfather is desperately trying to teach all the first-born males of the village. He hopes that a new chief will emerge from the group of boys, who were seemingly pulled with reluctance from their couch potato worlds. When none of the boys prove themselves worthy, the old man retreats to his bedroom in death-like despair.
Knowing the situation is dire, and that the Maoris of the village need to reclaim their cultural identity, Paikea summons the ancestral whales in a haunting warrior’s woeful cry. They come, but get washed onto the beach in an almost sacrificial surrender. This happens while Paikea is delivering her award-winning speech in a school presentation. The speech is about how Maoris need to get with the times and share the task of leadership as a unified group, rather than putting it on one person.
In the film’s climactic scene, Paikea performs a singular act of bravery that she hopes will inspire her people to become the unified group of her vision.
Whale Rider acquired its magic from the phenomenal performance of Castle-Hughes, a New Zealand native with no prior acting experience who was pulled from her school classes and interviewed for the role because the producers felt she embodied the true spirit of Paikea. The film was shot in the New Zealand village of Whangara, hometown of the writer Witi Ihimaera, and approximate location of the site where the original Paikea landed. Many of the extras in the film were town locals, who gave their full support for the project.