Section C New horizons

Online chapter
In this chapter we will cover:
some of the organisations and processes involved in the production
of Whale Rider
the history of the Maori people
the themes and issues raised within the flm
the ways in which people and places are represented
the style and genre of the flm.
8 Case study: Whale Rider
1 A promotional still for Whale Rider
Country: New Zealand
Production year: 2002
Director: Niki Caro
Certifcate: PG
Main awards:
Best feature flm: BAFTA Children’s
New Zealand Film &
TV award
Section C New horizons
Section C, Case study: Whale Rider
The flm Whale Rider follows Pai, the lonely daughter of Porourangi. Pai’s mother
died giving birth to her and her twin brother (who also dies). Porourangi
was heartbroken by his loss and leaves his daughter to be brought up by her
grandparents, also leaving his village and Maori traditions behind him.
Porourangi’s father is the Chief of Whangara but his old-fashioned attitudes blind
him to his granddaughter’s potential as his successor. It is only when disaster strikes
that Pai can prove to her grandfather that her village’s link with the spiritual world of
the Maori lives on.
Niki Caro is a relatively new flm director but a successful one who gained praise for
her frst flm Memory and Desire (1997). She worked closely with the writer of the
original book and producer of the flm. The writer, Witi Ihimaera, lived in Whangara
as a child and was inspired to write Whale Rider when a whale came into Hudson
Bay in New York, where he now lives, reminding him of the legends of his childhood.
In addition, his daughters commented on how the flms they watched rarely
seemed to have women or girls as the ‘hero’, so he wanted to write a story where a
girl was the protagonist.
Whale Rider was the frst flm to beneft from investment from the New Zealand Film
Production fund, which is a government initiative to support the New Zealand flm
industry. It is intended to help flm-makers gain wider distribution with the creation
of larger-scale flms. As the country is the birthplace of Peter Jackson, director of
Lord of the Rings, and a favoured venue for Jackson and other flm-makers, the
government seems keen to get in on the international flm market. Other flms
from New Zealand that have already been distributed over here include The World’s
Fastest Indian (2005) and Black Sheep (2006), a horror comedy. As with countries like
the UK, New Zealand hasn’t the fnancial means to produce large-scale flms so its
flms are often supported by foreign as well as local investors.
AO2 – Explore, respond to and refect on a range of flms and topics
As a class, see if you can fnd the answers to the following questions:
Who will become our next Head of State when the Queen either dies or decides
to stand down?
Is it always the eldest child who succeeds to the throne? If not, why not?
Does this seem unfair to you in any way?
Activity 1
Key terms
Protagonist: the
character at the centre of
the story that drives the
narrative forwards
Section C, Case study: Whale Rider
Maori culture
The culture and traditions of the Maori people are central to the narrative of Whale
Rider. Maori people are the indigenous people of New Zealand, which means the frst
people to have populated it. It is believed they may have originated from Polynesia.
The Maori lived of the land, hunting and growing food, and history was passed
down to generations through songs and chants rather than writing or images.
The Maori are a scattered group. In some areas they live in tight-knit communities
and in other areas they own farmland that is amongst other New Zealanders; many
move to cities and some Maoris forget their traditions and immerse themselves in
modern life.
The Maori religion considers nature as a living thing, closely bound to man through
ritual. Many of these rituals are still carried out through traditional art and music.
The Maori is a complex culture made up of a variety of tribes but land was shared
communally, with each tribe having a marae (a meeting hall). This meeting place is
sacred to the Maori people as it is seen to be the home of the ancestral spirits – it
is a very important part of Maori culture. It is the centre of the community, where
important events take place.
From the 1600s onwards many European settlers came to New Zealand. Although
the Maori did not accept this initially, they were left with little choice in the end.
British colonising led to further problems so in 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi was
signed. This meant the Maori signed over sovereignty to England in exchange for
protection of their rights to land. However, relations between the Maori and the
settlers were not good and many of their rights were ignored. New Zealand gained
independence in 1947.
There is increasing pride in being a Maori,
helped by the hugely revered rugby team
and their intimidating ‘haka’, which was
originally a war dance. Maori numbers are
on the increase but they are still a minority
in their own country.
Maoris, similar to Native American Indians,
have had various problems caused by invaders
taking over their land and taking their rights
of ownership away from them. Although there
are initiatives to help communities reclaim
lands, there are a lot of social problems evident
in Maori communities, such as drug addiction
and crime. Maori make up only 15 per cent
of the population but 50 per cent of the
prison population of New Zealand.
2 The marae, or meeting hall, in Whale Rider. What do you see it being used
for in the flm?
Section C, Case study: Whale Rider
Themes and issues
Gender: the changing role of women in society
Although the setting of Whale Rider is very important in terms of the flm’s narrative,
one of the central themes, the changing role of women in modern society, is universal.
Pai’s relationship with her grandfather, Koro, is threatened by her strength and
determination to adapt and so carry on traditions that have been important within
the Maori culture for generations. Tradition dictates that in every generation the
chief’s eldest son will take over his role. Pai’s father is the next in line. However,
when his wife and son (Pai’s twin brother) die during childbirth he leaves the village
and refuses to become the next chief.
As Pai grows up, her belief that she can become chief grows stronger. She loves
her grandfather and desperately tries to prove herself but Koro cannot adapt
and her ambition constantly threatens their relationship. Throughout the flm Pai
consistently proves her ability to lead; she demonstrates the necessity to both
hold on to the important values within a society while adapting to new challenges
and ideas. This theme is also explored through the coming of the whale, which
symbolises the importance of understanding our relationship with the natural
Style, narrative and genre
Whale Rider has a simple, linear narrative and though it brings to life elements
of myth and legend, it also maintains a social realist tradition of dealing with
social issues. It also has quite cheap production values and uses non-actors along
with established actors, which is common in social realism. However, there are
also elements of drama in the flm. There are lots of emotional scenes and we
particularly feel involved in the pain felt by both Pai and her grandfather. Though
Our relationship
with the
natural world
3 Themes and issues in Whale Rider
Section C, Case study: Whale Rider
we as a modern audience are likely to sympathise with Pai because we see Koro’s
attitude as stubborn and old-fashioned, the many close-ups we see when Pai or
anyone else is not looking show us the true pain Koro is in; and that in fact he is only
doing what he thinks is right to save his people from despair.
A positive ending to the trials of Pai brings
closure to the flm and a ‘happy ending’ for
the audience. Pai has successfully brought
her community together by showing the
courage and strength to almost sacrifce
herself to uphold her grandfather’s beliefs
by becoming the ‘whale rider’. This scene
is very emotional and dramatic when Koro
fnally realises Pai is the one he has been
looking for all along but trying desperately
to deny it.
Pai narrates the flm herself. In the opening
of the flm we see her birth and she narrates
what happened. She also narrates at other
stages in the flm, including the ending.
Sound is very noticeable in Whale Rider. The sounds that our attention is drawn to
are the sea, the sound of the whales, a lilting and melancholy soundtrack and the
Maori songs and chants. These sounds really help to create atmosphere in the flm
and are important in reminding us of the importance of song to the Maori religion
and culture. The whale sounds link to the story of how the ancestors came to
Whangara and the music is repeatedly referred to when the whales are seen. They
remind us of their spiritual link to the village as the sounds are almost ethereal.
There are a number of issues focused on in Whale Rider – social problems, family,
loss, poverty – but the main issue is Koro’s attitude that women, namely Pai, should
not try to take a role traditionally taken by men. He constantly ignores her practical
abilities and leadership qualities just because she is a girl. This links closely with his
culture and traditional beliefs.
4 Pai and her grandfather
AO2 – Explore, respond to and refect on a range of flms and topics
What is the purpose of using a narrative voice-over in a flm? 1
Why do you think a narrator is included in Whale Rider? 2
Why is Pai the one who narrates? 3
Activity 2
Section C, Case study: Whale Rider
Pai’s relationship with her grandfather is central to the development of the narrative
in Whale Rider. Right at the beginning of the flm he tries to reject her when she is
born but Nanny Flowers forces him to accept her as his granddaughter. The scene
straight after shows us Pai as a 12-year-old girl and it is clear they have grown close
as the frst image we see is her riding on the front of his bike.
This establishes their close bond early on in the narrative but the rest of the flm
focuses on the huge clash between them.
Pai stands out in the narrative in many ways and the flm repeatedly draws our
attention to her diference. We hardly ever see girls who are the same age as her other
than in the school concert. Pai is either with her family, who are all adults, or the group
of boys who end up being trained to take over the job she knows is really hers.
Pai is often flmed on her own. Her isolation is evident by the way she is flmed;
looking out to sea while sitting in her father’s boat, or standing away from the
group. She is also often dressed in brighter clothing than the group she is with so
she always grabs our attention.
The social problems faced by the community are also evident but they are not
dwelled on, so the audience understands these problems are sadly accepted as
part of modern life for the Maori. When Pai pays a surprise visit to her uncle, he is
half asleep with his girlfriend, with drug paraphernalia resting on his chest. He and
his friends are rarely seen without a beer and obviously have little to occupy their
time – whenever we see them they are just hanging around or playing pool. Our
attention is also drawn to Hemi’s father. After watching his son ‘audition’ to be chief,
he disappears immediately afterwards with a group of men in a black car. There is
an ominous edge to this scene that Hemi and the audience notice.
Whale Rider is about many things, including:
the problems caused by generational diferences
trying to maintain respect for ancient traditions in a modern world
the social problems faced by many young people.
But these problems are dealt with alongside the main narrative of the relationship
between Pai and her grandfather.
AO2 – Explore, respond to and refect on a range of flms and topics
See how many examples you can fnd where Pai angers her grandfather and when
she is upset by something he has done or said.
Why does Koro constantly reject the eforts of his granddaughter to please him?
Why does Pai constantly do things she knows will anger and upset her grandfather?
Activity 3
Section C, Case study: Whale Rider
Whale Rider is flmed entirely on location at Whangara, the setting for the book
from which the screenplay was developed. The flm-makers wanted to involve the
people of the local community in telling a story which is essentially about them, so
many of the locals star as extras in the flm. The setting is very important for creating
meaning within the narrative of Whale Rider. Long and wide shots of the village and
surrounding area emphasise both the beautiful, but quite barren, countryside and
also the poor standard of the housing and unkempt areas. Whangara does not look
like an easy place to prosper in. The audience are clearly told in Pai’s narrative voice-
over that this is not a place people stay if they want to do well. When describing what
happened in her childhood and to her father she says, ‘He went away. Everybody did.’
We don’t see any other locations so we feel the isolation of the community both
in a social sense and in terms of its culture. The village’s link with the sea is also
emphasised throughout the flm. It is often visible in long sweeping shots but it is
evident that this is not a tourist destination from the images of the sea and the beach
in wind and rain. The story of the whale rider and the ancestor’s arrival is referred to
throughout the flm and we are constantly aware of how Pai is drawn to the ocean.
AO2 – Explore, respond to and refect on a range of flms and topics
Watch the scene where Pai is leaving the village with her father.
How does the camera draw our attention to the sea?
How do we know something is wrong and that Pai is so strongly involved?
Activity 4
5 Whangara – the setting for Whale Rider
Section C, Case study: Whale Rider
Additional resources
Film Education: Whale Rider Case study at
The Making of ‘Whale Rider’ (NZ 2003), director Jonathan Brough
‘Whale Rider’ by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, 11 July 2003 (
‘Moby Chick’ by Philip French in The Observer, 13 July 2003 (
Chapter 4 is a key scene in the flm. Watch this scene where Pai and Koro are talking
about where her ancestors come from. He compares the ancestors to the rope with
which he is trying to fx the boat engine. The rope breaks and Pai fxes it but, rather
than thanking her or being impressed, Koro tells her she shouldn’t have done it.
The rope is used symbolically in this scene. Koro begins this symbol and it
continues throughout this scene. What do you think is the meaning behind the
rope breaking and Pai fxing it?
The fnal scene is another key scene and is the most dramatic in the flm.
Analyse the scene from where Pai is making her emotional speech to her
grandfather up until the ending. How do editing and camera angles emphasise
the relationship between Pai and her grandfather in this scene?
An important prop is also focused on in a close-up shot and this seems to be
when Koro realises Pai’s importance to the community. Why do you think this
moment is so important?
Here again we see Pai walking separately from the rest of the community and
there is despair that the whales will not survive. When Pai rides the whale this
changes everything. Analyse the micro elements from when Pai starts to ride the
whale until we see her in hospital. How is the drama of the scene emphasised
through sound, camerawork and editing in particular?
We fear Pai is dead but the fnal scene is uplifting and we are left in no doubt this
Maori community will survive as Pai, in her narration exclaims, ‘All together, all of
our strength’, is what will keep the village alive. How is this feeling strengthened
by what is happening?
Activity 5