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Whale Rider (2002)

by | Jun 2, 2014

A young Maori girl strives to attain her proper place in the life of her tribe, even though the place she seems destined for is one that tribal tradition forbids her to hold.

Medium: Film

Writer(s): Niki Caro, Witi Ihimaera

Director: Niki Caro

Production Co.(s): South Pacific Pictures; ApolloMedia; Pandora Filmproduktion

Adapted from: Whale Rider (Novel, © 1987) by Witi Ihimaera

The Story on the Screen

In Whale Rider, the main character, Paikea, feels compelled to attain her proper place in the society of the Maori tribe into which she has been born. She is not a power-hungry vixen using her wiles to attain a position of status for the satisfaction or perks that come with doing so. She is a girl who cares very much for her tribe and feels compelled to become involved in its health and history. And she is hindered in her efforts by her grandfather, Koro, a traditionalist who feels that she is not suited for such involvement, primarily because she is not male.

Paikea is a young girl who feels compelled to attain her proper place in the society of the Maori tribe into which she has been born—and whose health and history she cares for deeply.

Paikea's journey in the story results from death at birth of her twin brother, who would have one day been rightful heir to the leadership of her tribe. When her father rejects the leadership role for himself, Koro attempts to find a new next-generation leader from among its boys, each of whom Paikea can best at nearly any endeavor. At every step of Paikea's journey, Koro indirectly opposes her efforts, believing that women are not fit to lead the tribe. But when the boy candidates fail him repeatedly and a tragedy of beached whales brings the story to a crisis point, he is forced to accept the idea that Paikea might, in fact, be the leader that the tribe needs.

Behind the Scenery

With regard to her personal journey, Paikea is not attempting to regain possession of a treasure that she formerly held and lost. Neither is she attempting to keep a treasure that under threat of being lost, taken away, or destroyed. Instead, Paikea is a clear example of a gain character whose treasure is possession of what she feels is her proper place in her tribe, not necessarily at its head (as her conscious goal) but at its heart, where she can honor in positive ways its history and health. The nature of her pursuit involves the fulfillment of personal destiny, not only for her own sake but for that of her people. And because her motives seem to be pure, and she carries out her actions with integrity, we-the-audience are likely to side with her and hope that she succeeds in her attempt.

Paikea is a gain character opposed by her grandfather, who is a keep character.

The problem for Paikea is that the hierarchical position she desires is one of leadership—specifically, the type of leadership that is traditionally reserved only for males. And the problem is compounded by the fact that her grandfather, Koro, is a strict traditionalist whose intent is to regain the cultural health of the tribe but only in the context of its traditions, including male-only leadership. When Paikea tries to take part in his efforts to groom a new leader, he prevents her from doing so—angrily and in no uncertain terms. And when she acquires (by way of an ally) a fighting skill that he believes should be reserved for males only, he accuses her of dishonoring the tribe.

Since we-the-audience hope for her success in the attempt, it may be assumed that the storytellers consider her endeavor to be advisable. In broad terms, therefore, the proposition for Whale Rider can be stated as:

  • One should attempt to gain her proper place in the world even at the cost of defying tradition, because success in the attempt will result in happiness and health for all concerned.

Although the story is rich with interesting side tales, we-the-audience measure its progress solely by means of Paikea and her quest for significant involvement in her tribe. At its climax, a tremendous personal sacrifice on her part demonstrates her bravery and proves her worthiness to possess the role she seeks, convincing even Koro that tradition may sometimes be damned and that she may well be suited to leadership, after all, despite the obvious fact that she is not male.

And because the story ends with the success that we-the-audience hoped for, we are pleased with the outcome; therefore, Whale Rider stands as a shining example of a well-told succeed/pleased story.

Looking a Bit Deeper

As Chapter 6 of Discovering the Soul of Your Story reveals, it can be misleading to think in terms of all stories as containing a "protagonist" who is opposed by one or more "antagonists. And Whale Rider illustrates this principle nicely.

The main opposition to Paikea's quest is manifest in her grandfather, Koro—but even he does not focus his time and energies on directly opposing her attempt to gain what she feels to be her proper place in the tribe. He may do so when her efforts interfere with his own efforts to regain the cultural vigor of the tribe—in the traditional manner that he considers appropriate—but his main energies are directed at restoring that vigor, not on opposing Paikea in her quest.

The primary opposing force in Paikea's journey is her grandfather Koro, but he does not oppose her directly.

Whale Rider also illustrates clearly the subjective nature of powerful conditions of value. In this case, Paikea's treasure (to participate actively in the life of the tribe) is entirely subjective and is not one that her young peers deem to be of great objective worth and seek actively for their own. Her underlying desire to possess her proper place in the world renders her treasure universal, however, because the desire is common to human experience.

It is Koro's position in the tribe and family that allows him to exercise power over Paikea—the power that she must struggle against as she pursues satisfaction of her intent. And it is her strong and unrequited love for him that prevents her from abandoning her quest or attempting to achieve her goals in selfish and disrespectful ways. But her primary quest, to gain her proper place in the tribe, has nothing directly to do with power or love.

In short, Whale Rider, has a strong main character with a clear intent whose efforts are hindered by a character whose intent is also clear. As noted above, the hindering character (Koro) is not an "antagonist" who expends energy directly opposing Paikea. Consequently, they are not two characters on opposite sides of a clearly drawn line in the sand; they are characters on the same side of the line but with very different ideas about what to do there. As a result, they are sympathetic characters whose intents concern a common, overarching goal (the cultural health of the tribe) but who possess opposing views about how to achieve it.

That makes for very powerful storytelling.

For More Information

For details regarding the concepts and terms mentioned in this article, please refer to the resource materials.



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