*This film review includes spoilers.
Whale Rider is a standout Indie film that highlights the power of women in a male dominant society.
The film takes place in modern-day New Zealand amongst a group of Maoris, the indigenous people of New Zealand. It focuses on the story of protagonist, Paikea. Pai is the granddaughter of the current chief, Koro. Koro is looking to pass on his torch as chief, in order to strengthen the Maori community and to keep their traditions alive in the ever-changing world. Because tradition held that the eldest male heir is the one with the rightful claim to the throne, Paikea is not a viable option in her grandfather’s eyes. It is important to note that Paikea’s father, Porourangi, rejected his claim to being chief, when his wife died giving birth to Pai and her twin brother, who also passed. Before leaving his newborn daughter with his father and mother, Porourangi named his daughter Paikea. This was viewed as another defiant action in the eyes of his father, for the name Paikea is the name of the revered first ancestor of the Maori people, also known as the Whale Rider.
Throughout the entire film, Paikea tries to earn the approval and respect of her grandfather. Though he loves her, he does not consider her as able to lead their community because she is a girl. In the turning point of the film – when Paikea embraces her role as the Whale Rider and ultimately sacrifices herself in order to save the whales- Koro realizes the power Paikea possessed all along. She is and has always been the Whale Rider and no one but she could be the rightful Maori chief.
This film illustrates two substantial, current issues: feminism and protecting the earth. Addressing the former matter, the film depicts the multifaceted strengths of women through Pai and her grandma. Throughout the film Pai challenges her grandfather and his patriarchal practices. Alternatively, Pai’s grandma initially appears to be submissive to Koro’s temper, but she actually holds her ground. She is an example of someone who picks his or her battles in order to win the war – a nod to the wise women in my life. The power of women, whether overt like Pai’s or subdued like her grandma’s, is a constant theme throughout the film that progresses not only the plot, but also the leading man's thinking. Secondly, Whale Rider naturally focuses on the value of protecting the earth and its living creatures. The Maori people all come together as a community in an attempt to save the beached whales. They mourn for the loss of the whales that they could not save. The film does an excellent job of personifying the whales and their emotions through its music.
This is an important film. It is also a beautiful illustration of humanity’s interconnectedness with nature – a relationship that ought to be respected, especially in this day and age. Moreover, it is a call to women, especially young women, to stand up and to prevail towards what they believe in - no matter how difficult the challenge(s) may be. This film serves as a reminder that women have the power to create change and write their own history.