WHALE RIDER is one of those films you should really try and watch, and now that it's available on DVD there is no excuse. To be sure, this is not ground-breaking cinema in either content or technical achievement. But in this era of heartless movies buckling under the burden of computer generated special effects*, it is nice to see a simple story well told.
WHALE RIDER is set in a Maori community where leadership has been handed down from eldest son to eldest son for centuries. For the traditionalist current leader, Koro, the problems start when his son becomes an artist and travels the world rather than take up the mantle. Worse still, when the son has twin children, only the daughter survives. Paikea, that daughter, breaks all the rules. She is named after a male - the legendary original ancestor - and clearly has all the aptitude, courage and interest to become the new leader. This movie is the story of her desperate quest to show her grandfather that she is up to the task.
Watching WHALE RIDER through the prism of a recent viewing of NORTH COUNTRY one is aware of the fact that these flicks have three objectives in common. First, both aim to give you insight into life in an isolated community. In both films, director Niki Caro successfully captures the faces of the real people of these areas - their concerns, hopes and fears. Second, both films aim to show these communities struggling to translate traditional beliefs and customs into modern life. Where the women go down the mines in NORTH COUNTRY, in WHALE RIDER, a young girl becomes a tribal chief. I feel that WHALE RIDER is far more successful in handling this issue than NORTH COUNTRY. The transition of the traditionalist grandfather in WHALE RIDER seems more organic and plausible than the sudden epiphany of the father in NORTH COUNTRY.
Finally, each film has to make us identify with the heroine and to feel her persecution and eventual triumph. Once again, I found NORTH COUNTRY confused and confusing. Yes, I cried for Charlize Theron but for the wrong reasons and at the hands of some pretty hard-core emotional pornography. There was no melodramatic trick that Niki Caro did not resort to in order to get us to sympathise with Theron. By contrast, in WHALE RIDER we have a movie of such subtlety and poise that when the big knock-out moment comes - Paikea's speech in the school-hall - it takes us by surprise and with the full force of emotion. The slights suffered by Pai at the hands of her grandfather are not anything as dramatic as Theron's rape in North Country, but they carry far greater dramatic weight. Looking back at the delicacy and honesty with which these issues are handled in WHALE RIDER, I can only hope that Niki Caro goes back to quieter movies in future.
WHALE RIDER is available on Region 1 and 2 DVD. *Ironically, Keisha Castle-Hughes next role after the wonderful WHALE RIDER was to play the Queen of Naboo in that crime against cinema, Star Wars III.