Whale Riders

gen-x-review-whale-ridersThe world withers without its myths and myths die without people who believe in the miracles.

Although the film Whale Riders takes place in a small New Zealand coastal village, its story runs through our own as well. In a society where the center cannot hold and history appears to be only a string of errors, people will follow their own whims rather than serving the community’s needs. A miracle is not merely a single event that crystallizes a community, but the very fact that people can share and bond in a world that often feels empty, disenchanted or debased.

Koro (Rawiri Paratene), the village’s chief and religious leader, has been reading portents for years, trying to understand why his community is sick. When his son’s wife dies during childbirth, taking her newborn son with her yet leaving a twin daughter, he believes the prophecy has failed: The new chief has died before he’s even born, a disastrous omen. The physical manifestation of this fall is his granddaughter, Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes), who has somehow survived while her brother and mother have died.

The village is sick and without an heir apparent Koro despairs that things will get worse. And he’s right: This world is abandoned, its families dispersed, its bounty wasted. The ocean doesn’t provide for the islanders anymore. Instead they have turned away from their past in live in a collective amnesia, forging new identities through predicable forms of mass media like rock music, Rasta and rap culture and other postmodern consumerables.

But the real problem for Koro is that men are being siphoned away from the community. Fathers leave their children, preferring to remain in a state of prolonged adolescence; would-be chiefs turn their backs on their legacies; and nothing holds for long in a world structured primarily around individuals, instead of villages. He feels the weight of the entire community as its surrogate father figure, but these demands makes him stern and inflexible.

The myths have the power to focus the many into the one, but they seem too fragile and distant in this world. How pertinent is an origin to a people who appear to have no destination, who simply live for the moment, engaged in hedonistic pleasure? The legends feel remote to the villagers, as though they have no relevance to their day-to-day lives.

Koro decides to open a school to teach the old ways, but the irony is that he himself is a product of modern times. He has internalized the parochial system and can only envision the old stories in masculine ways. His very method of teaching is macho and the school is sort of a cross between boot camp and a Buddhist monastery: A seminary for WWF wrestlers.

He is so fixated on a male solution to the problems facing the village that he does not notice the miracle happening under his own nose.

Paikea matures under Koko’s watchful eyes, but the chief is unable to read the myths correctly and he misinterprets her as a curse when she’s really a miracle. When she tries to enroll in the school she is berated and sent packing. After all, the central legend tells about a mythical figure leading the villagers to New Zealand on the back of a whale.

The village totem certainly seems to endorse Koko’s view that the chief needs to be a male. It’s a male riding on the back of a big, black beast, straddling it in a way to suggest, erm, that he has a big… ah, well, that the whale is actually his… phallus.

Paikea certainly can’t boast about her phallic power, and Koko’s training has a decidedly misogynist bend, so the girl is banished from the school. But she studies in secret, learning the ancient martial art from her uncle and memorizing the traditional chants while hiding.

However, deeper, more mysterious forces are moving inside of the girl. She seems to possess knowledge beyond her years but when she disarms one of Koko’s other students in self-defense her grandfather becomes enraged, viewing the act as a sacrilege. It takes a real miracle, in the form of an absolute test with very real casualties, to test Koko’s faith in his reading of the ancient, religious scriptures.

Whale Rider is a special film, not least because of Castle-Hughes’ moving performance. This is a complex character with deep, undiscovered reserves and a queer way of looking at the world. Castle-Hughes is poignant without being over-sentimental, vulnerable without hiding behind her weakness, and powerful without resting her energies on the purely visible.

This is a film that invites you to swim, to surf in its hidden currents and odd undertows. Mystery is down there, buried beneath the ocean, waiting to be redeemed, and if the villagers can believe, maybe we can too. Sometimes you save the world by saving yourself.


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