On the whale’s back, Miro Bilbrough

Miro Bilbrough on Whale Rider the movie


I was unusually wary, seeing Whale Rider for the first time.   was in the editing stages of a short feature film, a peculiarly sensitive time to see someone else’s film. Sequestered away in near darkness, scrutinising the emerging sequences of your own film, you get – neurotic as this might sound – detail-obsessed, hypercritical. These are the tools with which you hone your story and interrogate the fluctuations of meaning that every small subtraction or addition of frames within a shot, shots within a scene, and scenes within a sequence (the syntax of your film) signifies.

Emerging into the world, especially the world of someone else’s film, you can be particularly intolerant of the fudges of narrative or meaning or characterisation that films so often pass off on their audiences. At the same time, if the other filmmaker is related to you by gender, age or nationality (and, in my case, Niki Caro is all three), the disappointments of the film will become acutely your own. You will imagine their struggles with financing, on set, and in the dark of the edit room – all these battles to construct, rather than be constructed by, the process of making a film. And you will feel, flinchingly, in the plush darkness, the difficulty of making a really good film.

I’d heard differing reports of the film from friends.

One found it “high quality children’s entertainment”, and although the film was not being marketed as such, the trailer had forewarned me I might agree. Another, a New Zealander with a flair for melodrama, wept in earnest engagement and said the cinema wept with her. There were no signs of snuffling at the session I attended. Perhaps it was too early in the day to work up the necessary emotion.

My own admiration for the achievements of the film – the handsome plainness of its design and production, the clear-eyed central performance by Keisha Castle-Hughes – was keen. But so was my disappointment. The film made me restless, and with a different sort of restlessness, homesick. Sitting in a sparsely populated, inner-city Sydney matinee, I ate up the lucidly framed, scrabbly grass yards rolling past boats, broken buses and boxy state houses down to the sea like a vanished childhood summer (and judging by the breathless adoration of Whale Rider’s international reviews on the net, you don’t have to be a New Zealander living abroad to be infected with the film’s nostalgia).

Before long, however, a tide of impatience swept over me. The casting of Keisha Castle-Hughes in her debut performance as heroine Pai is as good as casting gets. She’s so fiercely, tenderly “herself” this little actress that she seems to concentrate the performances of the adults around her – much like the child actor Haely Joel Osmont did for Bruce Willis in M Night Shyamalan’s film The Sixth Sense. But even her presence can’t lessen the predictability that afflicts the story – particularly as Castle-Hughes is the central weapon in the film’s ringingly clear affirmative action agenda.

Like the Witi Ihimaera book it is based on, Whale Rider is set in the East Cape settlement of Whangara, where, according to legend, founding ancestor Paikea arrived from Hawaikiki on the back of a whale. It opens in the present-day as the original whale rider’s patrilineal dynasty founders with the birth of baby girl, Pai, to the first-born son of Chief Koro. This crisis is underlined by the accompanying death of Pai’s twin brother – and with him their grandfather’s succession plans.

Growing up, Pai displays a singular affinity for traditional Maori culture and, less reciprocally, for her beloved grandfather Koro. Blinded to Pai’s gifts by her gender, Koro grooms her peers, the first-born sons of the village, for chiefdom. When they fail the sacred tests, he despairs. Pai calls on the “old ones” for help, and in response a herd of whales beach themselves at Whangara. When even Koro can’t coax them back to sea, Pai mounts the old bull, survives its sounding and saves the herd (and, symbolically, her tribe). Koro recants and accepts the new, female face of the future.

Reading Ihimaera’s The Whale Rider, a book that would be likeable were it not so overwritten, my esteem for Niki Caro’s film adaptation increased, even as I realised it shares fundamental flaws with the novel.

The Whale Rider’s jacket blurb notes that Ihimaera wrote his book over a period of three weeks, and to be blunt, it reads like it. As a children’s novel, it wears its affirmative action project vis-à-vis women’s lack of voice and perceived mana in traditional Maoridom on its sleeve. You can’t argue with the sentiment. However, in order to advance it, Pai ‘s characterisation in the book is overly idealised, severely qualifying the affirmative point. A lack of irony in Ihimaera’s treatment of the “girls can do anything” agenda (as if such a notion comes as a surprise) will also rankle with the older reader.

If Caro’s film earnestly embraces this agenda, she lends it emotional power and lucidity by transferring the book’s affably rambling (hokey) narration from Uncle Rawhiri to the young Pai’s sparer meditations. It’s a move that focuses the drama and makes it more poignant. It also makes the form truer to content: why have an uncle speak for the young girl protagonist if your story swings on female empowerment? In turn, Keisha Castle-Hughes – who has too much lean, touchingly awkward resolve to be pretty – lends the role humanity.

Something else to be grateful for: where the book intersperses intensely lacy passages of creation story into the present day narrative, Caro’s adaptation cuts the waffle, reducing these sections to stock footage of whales navigating the depths. The economy of this repeating motif is particularly effective in story-telling terms: a good example of a director thinking cinematically – not such a tautology as you might imagine. Decisions like these come close to contradicting my own grandmother’s oft-repeated childhood warning, “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”. Make that whale’s ear.

In the end, however, the film can’t transcend the book’s conceptual sentimentality or naivety. The way the affirmative intent is co-opted to the narrative’s nostalgia for the traditionally rural, village-based way of life of the tangata whenua sat uneasily with me, perhaps especially in the film, where that nostalgia is brought doubly to bear by the power of the image. This uneasy marriage is consummated in the film’s coda where, post Pai’s whale-save and blessing by Koro, Pai’s father’s abandoned waka is converted to its full ceremonial glory, and in defiance of tradition both sexes of the tribe launch it on the tide. A voice-over by Pai underlines the symbolic intent of this image, but in doing so also makes explicit the vagaries at the heart of it.

Philip Kemp in the English film magazine Sight and Sound (Volume 13, Issue 8) puts it this way: “At the end of the film, Pai’s voice-over asserts that ‘our people will go forward – united.’ But united around what?” To be honest, the question is enough to make your brain seize. Maybe it’s not surprising the filmmakers fudge the answer. But is it good enough to frame the film’s oracular ending – the newly egalitarian waka, Pai’s valedictory promise – and not really know what you are selling? And how exactly do you add up progressive traditionalism stuck in a pastoral time-warp?

Judging by the film’s international reception, many in an audience of nostalgic, detribalised Western urbanites don’t particularly care about such flakiness. But the upbeat rhetoric of the narrative’s close stuck in my craw like a fishbone: I just couldn’t swallow it.

If I had a child, particularly a little girl, I’d be pleased she had a screen heroine like the ardent Pai to mount a whale like a horse. And I’d be a liar to say that I wasn’t with Pai as she negotiated Koro’s recalcitrance, or that I didn’t enjoy the irreverent sloth of Uncle Rawhiri (Grant Roa) and his chubby siren of a girlfriend, Shilo (Rachel House). The film adaptation is higher quality girl’s own entertainment than the book, a flatteringly cinematic distillation of its images and story. And yet the way in which the film iterates rather than shows the crisis in contemporary Maori society, as expanded by Koro, can register as a lazy generalisation. When those semiotically overburdened pariahs, the village Bad Dads, are glancingly forced to stand in for this idea, I felt rebellious, as if the manipulation of my allegiances was too programmatic and the means too clichéd. For a few seconds too long I found myself hoping the narrative might skive off beyond the reach of the film’s edifying agendas, off to town with the Bad Dads in their hotted-up muscle car.


Miro Bilbrough has just completed the short feature Flood-house. Her other films include an award-winning adaptation of Herman Melville’s Bartleby and the film poem Urn.


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