The “Whale Rider”, filmed in New Zealand and directed by Niki Caro, is a film based on the novel of the same name, by Witi Ihimaera. Many of the extras in the film were actual residents of the town Whangara. The film is about a girl, Paikea Apirana, played by Keisha Castle-Hughes in her debut role, who battles to gain her grandfather’s respect, and to become the chief of the tribe.
By tradition, the leader of the tribe should be the first son, however Pai’s twin brother had died at birth, along with her mother, and due to Pai being female, and she technically cannot inherit the leadership from her Grandfather. Pai’s grandfather, Koro, is the leader of the tribe and is at first angry, of the death of his grandson and only being left with a granddaughter, which is ‘worthless’ to him, as he believes the role of the chief is should be reserved for males only. Gender issues are still a major factor in our current society.
The fact that Pai cannot be leader of the tribe because she is female, despite of her successful attempts to constantly prove that she can be a leader, by first being persistent to achieve the role, as well as learning traditional songs and dances, even though there is no precedent for a woman to do so, is one of the many examples of issues that the “Whale Rider” arises. For a small period of time, Pai decided to leave with her father, because Koro is mistreating her by blaming her of the many troubles the tribe faces. However she finds that the whales are calling her back, and returns home.
In hope of finding a new leader, Koro forms a cultural school for the village boys, teaching them traditional Maori chants, and how to use a taiaha. Pai’s Nanny had told her, that her uncle Rawiri had won a taiaha tournament when he was younger, and Pai secretly learns from him. Koro is enraged when he finds out about Pai learning how to use a taiaha, and even more so when she wins in a fight against one of the boys, Hemi. Koro’s relationship with Pai is eroded further when none of the boys succeeded at recovering the whale tooth he threw into the ocean – the traditional task of proving one would be worthy of a leader.
In an attempt to mend her relationship with her grandfather, Pai invites Koro to the performance that her school is putting on, in hope he would see that she had won an inter-school speech contest, and dedicating it to him and the traditions of the village. In her speech, Pai talks about her ancestors, how she wishes to be leader and that it wasn’t anybody’s fault that she was a girl or the death of her brother, that everything just happened. However, Koro was late to the performance, and as he was walking to the school, noticed several beached whales near their home.
The entire village attempts to keep the whales hydrated, and to push them back into the ocean, but all efforts prove unsuccessful. Koro sees this as a sign of his failure and despairs further. He scolds Pai for touching the whale because she “has done enough damage”. However, when Koro walks away she climbs onto the back of the largest whale, traditionally belonging to her legendary ancestor, Paikea – The Whale Rider, and coaxes it back to re-enter the ocean. The whale leads the entire pod back into the sea, Paikea holding onto its back, and nearly drowning in the process.
Everyone finds out and rushes to the beach. Nanny Flowers, crying, hands Koro the whale tooth Paikea had previously recovered to which he responds “Which one? ” Nanny then replies “What do you mean, ‘which one? ’”, and then walks away. When Pai is found and taken to the hospital, Koro sings her traditional Maori songs, seeks her forgiveness and declares her chief. The film ends with Nanny, Hemi, Shilo and the rest of the village, along the beach, celebrating and watching as the waka, including Pai and her grandfather, father and uncle is being rowed out to sea.