Endless Summer: Whale Rider (2003)

Time is relative right now. We got … what, four major movies out of a summer movie season? Thus, the Midwest Film Journal has been celebrating — at least in the astronomical sense — Endless Summer. In this intermittent series, which comes to a close today, we’ve been looking back at summer films from seasons past. Big, small, light, heavy, wild successes and weird misfires. Even though the series is ending, consider this multiplex always full and open for Endless Summer.


Stacey Mickelbart likes to write about culture — defined in the widest sense possible. Her reviews and commentary have appeared in NUVO, Guernica, Hyperallergic, and the New Yorker’s book blog Page-Turner. When she’s not thinking about culture, she’s editing a science magazine.

“The flat is on Faranewey Road,” the man said as I jotted down notes. 

I was calling around to find an apartment back when newspaper ads were still a thing. The ads never had exact addresses, and you know that old real estate trick: “Great central city location,” the ad declares, and then you find out it’s two neighborhoods over, adjacent to the city’s heart at best. I grabbed my map to pinpoint the road, scanning for streets that began with “F” or “Ph” or “V” — anything that resembled the sounds I’d heard on the other end of the phone. I never found it. 

It would take a few more weeks for me to learn that in te reo Māori (the Māori language), the letter combination “wh” makes the sound associated with “f” in English. It would take several more for me to stop trying to pronounce Māori as if I were reading Spanish.

Exactly a year later, Paikea Apirana, played by Keisha Castle-Hughes, was trying to dive deeper into Māori culture herself in Whale Rider, which debuted at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2002 and went into wide North American release in June 2003. (That’s a small cheat for the Endless Summer series, since June in New Zealand is decidedly wintertime. But hey, it hit New Zealand theaters during that nation’s summer, and in the spirit of this series’ theme, what does time mean anymore anyway?) 

Based on a novel by Witi Ihimaera and putting writer-director Niki Caro on the map, Whale Rider tells the story of Paikea, a 12-year-old Māori girl growing up in Whāngārā, a small town on the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island. According to tribal legend, Pai’s eponymous ancestor arrived from Hawaiki on the back of a whale, and she descends from that line of chiefs, which includes her grandfather, Koro. He’s looking for the next leader, but Pai’s not in the running because she’s a girl. And Koro has never forgiven her for the death of her mother and twin brother, the presumptive chief, at her birth.

So many details in the opening scenes are quintessential New Zealand. The birds and flowering trees of the hospital’s wallpaper are typical; native birds and plants are common design elements and closely associated with the national identity. The Apiranas live in a modest weatherboard house with a corrugated iron roof, just like those scattered throughout both islands, unassuming against the grandeur of the landscape. The camera pans past the house to the low-hanging sky over the Pacific, skimming over the long white clouds that give the nation its Māori name, Aotearoa.

Koro doesn’t realize Pai’s destiny, but she does. As her grandmother removes her from the hospital room so Koro can mourn her twin brother, her cries drown out her grandfather’s lament. This is a voice that will be heard, and Koro’s fondness for Pai grows as she does, into a spirited, curious and watchful little girl. As Koro gathers the young boys of the village to teach them tribal culture, Pai pushes to learn more as well, but he rebuffs her effort. She refuses a place at the back of the class and enlists her uncle Rawiri to mentor her instead.

I was learning Māori culture at a disadvantage, too. A newly arrived Pākehā, the common term in New Zealand for non-Māori people, I lived on the South Island. While one in seven Kiwis identify as Māori, 90% of them live on the North Island. So though plant, animal and place names were often te reo Māori, as well as some common expressions like family (whanau) and the friendly greeting kia ora, I might have struggled to learn about and interact with Māori people and culture.

Then I landed a job at a research institute studying New Zealand’s land, environment and biodiversity. My colleagues were busy tramping through the bush and boating when they weren’t working, inviting me along and supplying extra camping gear and extensive knowledge of the landscape. And because we frequently worked with native plants and animals, we sought permission from and consultation with local Māori tribes, who serve as kaitiaki, or guardians, of those resources.

So I learned to sing waiata and the common format of a pōwhiri, or Māori welcome, at work. I was able to observe a hui, or formal gathering, and hear some of the mihi, the speeches conducted as part of our consultation. While New Zealand’s 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, between the British Crown and 500 Māori chiefs, is far from perfect, it’s a living document, constantly reinterpreted and informing legislation to preserve Māori land and resource rights. While I don’t want to paint an overly rosy view of a contentious document and process, it struck me as a relationship that was a hell of a lot healthier than the virtually non-existent one most Americans have with Native American culture and people.

But change is hard, as Pai also learns. Her father, Porourangi (played by Māori actor Cliff Curtis, Hollywood’s ethnic everyman), is met with blank stares when he shows his artwork to his family. They don’t know how to understand this modern version of the same carving and sculpting skills that adorn the wharenui (meeting house) in their village. He’d abandoned the waka (canoe) he was carving on the beach when he left the community and admits it hurts him to see his people stagnating. Koro, says his wife Nanny, is looking for something that doesn’t exist anymore.

Pai knows better, however, and passes every test, recovering Koro’s whale tooth necklace from the seabed, learning waiata, performing haka (cultural dances), and delivering an impassioned speech to close her school concert, honoring her ancestry but asserting that we can all learn and be leaders.

That speech left few dry eyes in movie theaters and was certainly one factor in Castle-Hughes’ Oscar nomination for the Best Actress award. Unfortunately, Koro misses it as he discovers a pod of beached whales along the seashore, and the village labors all night to try to save them. The image of Pai wading out the next morning to commune with the whales as the rest of her neighbors wade back to land is striking; she’s literally and figuratively fighting against the tide. Only after she nearly drowns guiding the lead whale to safety, and her recovery of the whale-tooth necklace is revealed, does Koro accept that she can indeed lead the tribe into the future. The rest of the world responded, too, with Whale Rider grossing $41 million worldwide.

This summer was the perfect time to rewatch it. The central questions of the film are those with which we’re still grappling: When does our history hold and uplift us, and when does it bind? How do we reexamine it and find a more inclusive way forward? Living in New Zealand for four years widened my perspective on issues like these, as living abroad so often does. There’s more than one way to do things, and some of those other ways are worth considering and adapting.

As the U.S. struggles with an uncontrolled pandemic and racial unrest, while fighting to maintain the very foundation of its democracy, New Zealand enjoys the capable leadership of Jacinda Ardern. Over the past three years, she’s empathetically and decisively guided the nation through a heartbreaking mass shooting at a Christchurch mosque and the COVID-19 pandemic, with fewer than 2,000 cases and only 24 deaths as I write. If reelected this fall, she’s pledged to make Matariki, the celebration of Māori new year, a national holiday to recognize Māori tradition and culture.

As we head into the fall and a fractious election season, I think of Pai’s words to close the film: “I’m not a prophet, but I know that our people will keep going forward, all together, with all of our strength.” I hope the United States can find a more progressive and united way forward as well. And just so you know, if you ever visit Christchurch: Wharenui Road is not in the city center.



Guest Writer


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