Thursday, October 10, 2013

Whale Rider

This post follows criteria, using the historical framework. Also, spoilers!

This past Saturday we saw Niki Caro's Whale Rider, first broadcast in 2002 and set in beautiful New Zealand. The major focus of this narrativeoriginally written by Witi Ihimaerais on a young Māori girl named Paikea (played by the remarkable Keisha Castle-Hughes) and her desire to be seen as an equal by her old-world grandfather, Koro (played by Rawiri Paratene). I was in the group that presented during class, so I have collected a lot of information on Māori art, culture, and history. In this post, I will touch on the cultural traditions of the Māori, oral folklore, and the obsession with male leadership. I also plan on briefly discussing the matter of destiny and the film's ambiguous ending. Let's get started!

Rated PG-13 for brief language and reference to drugs.

As said during the presentation, the Māori migrated to New Zealand from Polynesia. [Remember what Maggie presented about Kupe and his octopus? Yeah, that guy.] This means that they brought over some of their customs and beliefs. It is also important to know that the Māori were evolving from a Neolithic culture and, as such, theylike the rest of the worldcreated systems to conserve resources. One of these systems is known as Tapu. Anything, anyone, or anywhere that is labeled as such becomes 'taboo' and is seen as being sacrosanct. This was most often enacted by tohunga (priests) in order to connect people/places/things with spiritual ties and to protect resources from overexploitation. There were consequences for the violation of tapu...most notably, death. As we saw in the movie, Pai breaks tapu when she handles a taiaha/fighting stick and performs mau rakau/stick fighting with one of the boys being taught in the school. Koro discovers this and is enraged not so much at the fact that Pai took up a taiaha, but that a girl disarmed one of his male students. He scolds and banishes her from the area despite the fact that they are related and she was just defending herself. I found it interesting that when the boy with whom she had been sparring told Koro that it was not her fault, he snapped at him to go wash his face because he had been crying. This exemplifies the dominance of  macho behaviour in Māori culture...but I digress into the feminist approach.

Although it was not mentioned specifically in the movie, another aspect of Māori culture is the idea of mana, i.e., power and prestige. Entire tribes exhibit mana whenua to show dominance over their land just as individuals show that they possess mana tangata through their whakapapa (genealogical) connections. I cannot help but think that Koro has some major issues concerning the display of his personal mana. He is old school and probably considered an elder, or a kaumatua, by everyone in the community. In order to uphold his appearance, he clings to how things once were and attempts to fill generational gaps with an onslaught of heritage appreciation in the form of whakapapa trials (performing haka dancing, honoring ancestors in the wharenui/meeting house, testing wairua/spirit by throwing his rāhui whale tooth into the ocean, etc). The disappointment he feels in both of his sons is unfairly shifted onto Paikea. Her mere name is an annoyance to him for a reason I will dissect in the following paragraphs, and even at her birth Koro only cares about her dead twin and the lost lineage (symbolism of the frayed rope). His wife was having none of that nonsense though. Nanny Flowers is a pretty cool lady.

Paikea sitting in her father's waka (canoe) like the Whale Rider of Māori legend.

Storytelling is a sacred activity in Māori culture. It was all spoken word before literacy came to New Zealand with the Europeans and their missionaries. One of the most well known folkloric stories that has survived the test of time is that of the Whale Rider Paikea. Yes, this bloke and the girl in the film share a name because her father wanted to spite Koro for not grieving the loss of his daughter-in-law. Anyway, the myth goes that Paikea's brother Ruatapu became angry when their father elevated Pai's rank. Ruatapu's mother was a slave-woman, so her son could never be as respected as his brother. This pissed him off enough to build a waka and lure all of his high-born brothers (including Pai) into it and later try to drown them out in the ocean. While Ruatapu was busying murdering the other brothers, Pai recited an incantation that called the humpback whales to carry him back to shore. Fin. [Pun intended.] So, Ruatapu's father was kind of a jerk, Koro was (at times) a massive dick. Pai called and rode the whales. Other Pai did the same. Hmm...


Yeah, well, Māori society is patriarchal. Because of that origin story, all leaders in the tribe have been first-born males, giving no chance to anyone who might actually do well in said role. Rachelle mentioned during the presentation that it is a fundamental belief in their culture that women lead from behind. This gives them some modicum of power—Nanny Flowers and her poker circle, Uncle Rawiri's girlfriend, the school teacher, Pai herself—and that is probably why it is so difficult for Koro to accept Pai's own mana. He is bound by custom and fears his tribe's loss of respect for tradition, so he himself cannot welcome Pai as a leader until she proves, time and again, that she is 'meant to be' the next Whale Rider. Her father's choice to sire her "Paikea" is an insult to Koro because of the name's all-important meaning...but, eventually, the elder 'changes his mind' about her. D'aww.


This trailer shows a few of the cultural aspects present in the movie.


Pai was brought up to appreciate her heritage. Compared to all of the first-born boys in the village (and her own father), she appears best suited for the role of tribal leader. She takes the time to learn mau rakau, listens in on Koro's lessons, and memorizes that heart-breaking speech in honor of her beloved grandfather. She calls to the whales and they beach themselves. It is only when Nanny Flowers reveals to Koro the carved whale tooth that Pai retrieved from the bottom of the sea that he realizes she was always meant to be their leader. She was also riding a gigantic whale sooo that was a bit of a clue. :\

Pai at her recital, dedicatedly wearing tribal dress and tā moko face paint.

That brings me to the film's conclusion. Did Paikea die? What was said to Koro on the telephone before he went to the hospital? Did he die of heartbreak, and were they both spirits on the waka celebrating the fact that the tribe had finally come together over her sacrifice? (There was another major advancement on that front: women were performing haka and rowing the canoe alongside their male counterparts. Huzzah!) It seems to me that Caro wanted to leave all of that up for interpretation by her audience. I first saw this movie around the age of eleven and I did not remember seeing any scene after Pai let go of the whale underwater. It is possible that my eyes were drowning in tears at the time (some movies can do that to me so easily), but I find such a large gap in memory hard to reconcile. Was it simply my brain assuming that the girl was gone? Dunno. Deep stuff, that. How do you interpret the ending? I know in class everyone was going a tad mental over the whole thing, so share your thoughts!

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2 comments:

  1. Not Spoilers! and Criteria! Great summary and response. You do a good job weaving information about Maori culture and history into your reflections on the storyline. I had forgotten the hospital scene as well. Weird. You don't think it was added for the DVD, do you?

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    1. Thank you, Mimi. It was pretty easy to use the historical framework with this post, given that I presented on Maori culture. :P

      That's an interesting theory about the added scene...doubly weird that we both forgot!

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