AFED #28: Whale Rider (New Zealand, 2002); Dir. Niki Caro

When we watch a film we enter into an unwritten contract that we're willing to be manipulated.

Be it sympathy, happiness, sadness, anger, fear, lust or any combination of these; if the film-maker is skillful they'll succeed in delivering at least some of us to that emotional state. We accept that their intentions are more or less benign and go along for the ride.

That manipulation doesn't always sit quite so comfortably afterwards, when reason resumes control. Traditionally the works which are singled out for criticism or censorship are those more extreme films which, according to our moral guardians, have the tendency to 'deprave and corrupt'.

But there's another kind of film that can be equally ruthless; those which seek to speak to our inner child and the unresolved issues we never quite put aside.

Where is this coming from? Well, because at the end of Niki Caro's Whale Rider I cried, which - being a jaded cynic - isn't a common occurrence.

Whale Rider is essentially a modern day parable or folktale, one might even say magic realist. It's the story of Pai, a young girl growing up in a small Maori village. When Pai's twin brother dies at birth it creates a dilemma as Pai's grandfather, Koro, requires a male heir to succeed him as the tribe's chief.

Despite Pai's obvious resourcefulness, intelligence and adoration Koro is unable to accept her and ascribes many of the tribe's current misfortunes to her birth. When Koro begins tutoring the boys of the tribe in the old ways in his search for a leader, the demonstrably more able Pai is excluded and even forced to leave the family home.

Events reach a head when a school of whales - an animal with whom the tribe has a close affinity - are discovered to have beached themselves, prompting a crisis that forces Koro to question his values.

You would have to be an idiot not to expect a happy ending of course, but that doesn't prevent some heartbreaking moments. When Pai invites Koro as guest of honour to the school's concert but he fails to appear, there's a gut-wrenching scene when she delivers a speech eulogising him.

What makes Whale Rider so powerful is it taps into the fundamental human desire for parental approval and acceptance, something most of us never fully achieve. Although the story is mainly told from a Pai's perspective one suspects its catharsis will resonate even more powerfully with adults.

Niki Caro is a skillful director and just about succeeds in telling a highly sentimental tale without becoming excessively twee. The performances she extracts from her cast, particularly the 12 year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes, are excellent. Whether this is an accurate portrayal of contemporary Maori life I'm a little more dubious, but suffice to say the New Zealand Tourist Board must have been very satisfied with the job Caro did in capturing the beauty of the coastal location.

It's an extremely manipulative film, make no bones about it; but that isn't always a bad thing.


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