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Whale Rider: An Affirmation of Tribal Identity

Posted February 28th, 2011 at 01:50 PM by Gile na Gile
Updated March 2nd, 2011 at 01:33 PM by Gile na Gile



Of those films that contain both a message and a heart few can compare to Whale Rider. For me, there lies within its apparent simplicity a profound message; one that has much to say on some of the challenges faced by tribal communities attempting to adapt to change in the so-called 'developing world'. In many marginalised, traditional societies there exists today what is often referred to as the phenomenon of 'cultural cringe', an almost embarrassed reaction which seeks to hide away or disguise an often profusely rich cultural heritage; one struggling in the face of secular and modernising forces. Many of these marginalized cultural and ethnic groups find it increasingly difficult to maintain their traditions in the face of the modern world's pressures towards conformity, be it in the social, economic or religious spheres.

Modernity has brought so much in terms of technological change, medical advances, systems of governance and the prospect of vastly improved material lifestyles that the easier option oftentimes is to to live a type of self-denial, to grasp at these benefits at the expense of the often far richer communal ties to be found in the extended network of one's tribal identity. Part of the pressure to conformity comes from the many books and films which seek to depict various aspects of traditional lifestyles as outmoded, superstitious or patriarchal; our modern sensitivities tend to recoil for instance in the face of such practices as female circumcision and arranged marriages. But within many of these cultures, lying at the interface between tradition and modernity, there is a constant re-negotiation occurring, one that seeks to elaborate new tactics for absorbing the beneficial elements of modernity while at the same time preserving what is vital and distinctive about their own heritage. Whale Rider, on the other hand, is one of those rare films which manages to capture some of these tensions in subtle and brilliant fashion; but instead of denouncing, through a laborious and hard-won struggle it concludes, by joyously affirming the integrity and worth of tribal identity. 

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Set amongst a small Maori community off the coast of New Zealand, Whale Rider ostensibly tells the tale of Pai, a young girl who tries to show her stubborn grandfather, Koro, that she is worthy to become the first female heir to the tribe of Paikea, the ancestor to whom they trace their lineage. However, the film never risks dissolving into a mere feminist diatribe; an expose of the supposed chauvinisms embedded in a thousand year patriarchy. This is because the drama of Pai's resistance is played out amidst the backdrop of a community who are for the most part adrift; apathetic and demoralised. Nowhere is this clearer then on the night that Pai, in traditional dress and native Maori tongue retells the story of her people's origin - but to a virtually empty community hall. Koro, the chief, her guest of honour, the one who would most appreciate her lines, is absent.


He has become self-loathing and insular since his perceived failure to secure a successor; tradition demands a male heir but all have failed the trials of leadership. Meanwhile, Pai has spread her wings, proudly bringing her people's story far and wide. Her performance this night though, intended to be a positive celebration of Maori culture now threatens to engulf her as her belief in Koro's faith in her melts with the tears that stream from her cheeks. For those watching who have struggled with and repressed the dragon of tradition the scene has an added symbolic resonance almost echoing the muffled cries of indigenous everywhere; their pleas for recognition being swept into the abyss, cast aside amidst the cold calculus of modernity’s onward thrust.

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The narrative, in fact, isolates the death of Pai's brother, the heir apparent, as the beginning of this downward decline. Yet as the film unfolds it becomes clearer that this event, while tragic, has become a readily used scapegoat for the ills of the community. The real problem lies with the lack of faith that their community has for the value of its traditions, their relevance and ability to address the difficulties around them. This problem is compounded by Koro's style of leadership which has become increasingly uncompromising and conflict-generating.

Pai becomes the catalyst for the community's reinvigoration but she does not act alone. Her belief can only survive if it is supported by those around her. Each time Koro rejects her participation in the trials of leadership to protect tapu, or sacredness, she is subtly redirected by Nanny Flowers, Koro's wife. She refuses to allow the warea, or leadership ceremony to begin until Pai arrives and points her to her Uncle Rawidi, the second son who himself becomes re-energised when Pai seeks from him the skills of the taiaha.

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Pai's sacred grove is in the belly of the waka left abandoned by her father. Chipped, worn, wind-tossed and neglected it is emblematic of the withering faith of her people. Yet it is here, by the sea, under the carved figurehead of Paikea, that she wrestles with these problems of purpose and direction, both of her own and of the community. It is here she listens to the words of her father and Nanny Flowers. Both undermine the authority of Koro for her benefit but she sees her struggle as identical to that of her grandfather. Despite his dogmatic assertion of male privilege he is for her a passionate protector of the values from which she derives her strongest sense of identity.

The beached whales are heavily metaphoric; much like the knotted strands of rope that Koro's aggression snapped but Pai managed to weave together; for the Warangara Maori they are the very embodiment of their accumulated traditions. The community’s choice appears to be clear; if the whales are not moved they will suffocate and perish, almost like the diaspora of Koro’s reign. In typically aggressive fashion he orders a tractor, harness and grappling ropes to force them back into the water but the attempt ends in failure. While the community dejectedly dissipate Rawidi looks to the verge where he sees the darkened figure of Pai attent and proud in the pod of the waka like some ancient avatar of Paikea himself looking down disapprovingly on the efforts of his tribe. "They wish to die", she whispers to herself. Is she talking about the whales or her own people? By projecting onto the whales the demoralisation of her people she sees they can be moved but only through the right approach; eschewing the rigid authoritarianism of Koro, she begins with the traditional Maori hongi, or nose rub.

A liminal twilight then descends as Pai straddles the whale just as the legendary Paikea had before her. An almost telepathic communication with this creature from the deep - embodying the collective unconscious of her people - makes possible the conveyance of a truth: evolving Nature will do all it can for those with purity of respect and purpose. We now glimpse what strength and vigour lay slumbering. Of the whales, who easily dispatch themselves from the shore and of the tribe itself who have discovered in Pai the true heir apparent. For those watching in disbelief the sight of Pai atop the whale has all the qualities of an epiphany; a symbolic act that finally fuses the ethos of the tribe; making real to them what was till then only dimly imagined as myth and fable. They have been given unity of purpose by seeing through this miracle that at least one among their number had never stopped searching and never lost faith or hope in the worth of their collected traditions, knotting together, through this act, the strands of their entwined generations.

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Comments

  1. Old Comment
    okamido's Avatar
    Great blog Gile Na Gile, I absolutely loved this film. Whale Rider was my first exposure to the Maori and your blog just reminded me that I wanted to pick up the original source material.
    Posted February 28th, 2011 at 08:12 PM by okamido okamido is offline
  2. Old Comment
    Bismarck's Avatar
    That is an excellent essay, Gile. Very impressive. You have grasped the essence of the story most coherently.

    However, I thought the film itself was a little overblown and drawn-out in places, nevertheless it told a great story.
    Posted March 1st, 2011 at 12:07 AM by Bismarck Bismarck is offline
  3. Old Comment
    Gile na Gile's Avatar
    Hey, thanks guys.

    Always nice to know someone's reading
    Posted March 1st, 2011 at 06:16 PM by Gile na Gile Gile na Gile is offline
  4. Old Comment
    Gile na Gile's Avatar
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Bismarck View Comment
    However, I thought the film itself was a little overblown and drawn-out in places, nevertheless it told a great story.
    Didn't hear too much of it myself over here. I expect the promotional drive was much more intense in New Zealand and so inevitably with that much exposure it may disappoint a little. I only came across it by accident really. But, unusually for me with films I got so drawn into the story I had to pen down something.

    I'm like Okamido now, I need to get my hands on a hard copy. A great film, a real work of art I think.
    Posted March 1st, 2011 at 06:47 PM by Gile na Gile Gile na Gile is offline
 

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