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Apr 23rd
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Hail Whale Rider

Writer-director Niki Caro may have created a knockout indie hit with Whale Rider, but first, there was a legend to learn

You are a filmmaker living in the western world. You’re modernized, scrutinized and accessorized. You’re hip, but you’re also deep, which is way your burning desire to make a movie out of Witi Ihimaera’s novel about the surprise emergence of a female leader in a so-not-westernized male-dominated coastal New Zealand tribe takes 10 years, a great deal of patience and hell of a lot of humility.

If you were screenwriter/director Niki Caro, you may be experiencing some pride these days—Caro’s artistic verve resonates in every frame of the fascinating-to-watch Whale Rider, opening at the Nickelodeon Theatre this week.

But long before the film became a reality, Caro had to fully wrap her mind around the real-life 1,000-year-old Maori (indigenous people of New Zealand) legend of a particular coastal village depicted in Ithimaera’s book. Specifically, Caro had to understand the legend—the tribe’s founding father, Paikea, arrived by whale in Aotearoa (today’s New Zealand) in the eighth century. According to the tribe, Paikea was a “demi-god, able to change his form and appearance.” Furthermore, the moment he stepped in Aoteara, he became the “eponymous male, able to generate future generations of Maori.” For centuries, leaders of the tribe were direct male descendents of Paikea.

But here’s where things get interesting. Ihimaera, who is linked to the Whangara community and grew up hearing about the whale, created a twist. In his book, and in the film Caro would eventually pen and direct herself, the drama played out like this: What would happen if the heir the Ngati Konohi tribe, the subtribe of the Ngati Porou, who reside along New Zealand’s east coast, died at birth and is survived by his twin sister? Would the lineage be broken?

Caro, a New Zealander raised in Auckland and who eventually turned to filmmaking after considering a career as a sculptor, so fell in love with this concept that she began to work closely with the novelist, drafting numerous scripts, which they would review and submit for approval to the elders of the Ngati Konohi.

“I couldn’t have done it without them,” Caro says. “They are the real descendents of Paikea and we shot where we believed the original whale rider came to on that beach thousands of years ago. You are talking about a small group of people with an intense relationship to that legend and because of the ancestry, that was and extreme concept for me, who is quite urban and who travels around the world quite a lot.”

She was particularly impressed by the tribe’s respect.

“They have an allegiance to the community first,” Caro says. “In the western world, we are so encouraged to be individualistic. It was a real amazing awakening for me to work in a tribal way instead of individualistic way,  and the clearest example of that was my response to this job. It was the privilege to tell this story on screen, to serve it, and to take that position. I take this as being bigger than me—it chose to be told on screen now. It chose me to do it. What I needed to do was serve that based on my ability—and to take care of it (the legend) and do a good job and be proud.”

There’s plenty of reason to be. The film has become an international film fest hit, taking home the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and Rotterdam International Film Festival, and the People’s Choice Award in last year’s Toronto Film Festival. Most of all, it has introduced audiences to one of most memorable young talents to hit the screen since Anna Paquin upstaged Holly Hunter in The Piano: Keisha Castle-Hughes. As Pai, Castle-Hughes, a total newcomer to the screen and only 11 when the film was shot, delivers an emotionally-charged performance and successfully carries the film.

“She has a great deal of stamina and strong will and she did a good job, which is quite unusual for a kid,” Caro admits. “Most kids who want to be in movies … don’t necessarily have the ability to handle what it takes to carry a film—fewer have the stamina and strength and the emotional availability that Keisha had in order to play this role.”

Caro also feels the film says a lot of things: “Essentially it is a meditation on leadership and what it takes, and what great leadership really is. When I was writing Pai, it wasn’t the great chiefs I looked to, it was more to the contrary—to the Dali Lama type … to lead with compassion and love and in this child, we see somebody whose instincts are toward those things. She is the ‘puny’ person who has a deep understanding  of the burden she carries. She is a child preparing for the role she has in the future, and at same time, preparing all those around her.”

Filmmaking legend has it that not all stories come equipped with happy endings, but fortunately, Caro’s—and Whale Rider’s—does. Eventually, when the film was shown to the Paikea tribe, “they were extremely pleased and gave us their blessing.”

Not bad for a wonderfully “westernized” woman.




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