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Whale Rider - Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Cliff Curtis, Niki Caro

Threat advisory: Severe - Severe risk of entertaining activities

Movie propaganda

The whales are listening.

In a small New Zealand coastal village, Maori claim descent from Paikea, the Whale Rider. In every generation for more than 1000 years, a male heir born to the Chief succeeds to the title.

The time is now. The Chief's eldest son, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), fathers twins - a boy and a girl. But the boy and his mother die in childbirth. The surviving girl is named Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes).

Grief-stricken, her father leaves her to be raised by her grandparents. Koro (Rawiri Paratene), her grandfather who is the Chief, refuses to acknowledge Pai as the inheritor of the tradition and claims she is of no use to him. But her grandmother, Flowers (Vicky Haughton), sees more than a broken line, she sees a child in desperate need of love.

And Koro learns to love the child. When Pai's father, Porourangi, now a feted international artist, returns home after twelve years, Koro hopes everything is resolved and Porourangi will to accept destiny and become his successor.

But Porourangi has no intention of becoming Chief. He has moved away from his people both physically and emotionally. After a bitter argument with Koro he leaves, suggesting to Pai that she come with him. She starts the journey but quickly returns, claiming her grandfather needs her.

Koro is blinded by prejudice and even Flowers cannot convince him that Pai is the natural heir. The old Chief is convinced that the tribe's misfortunes began at Pai's birth and calls for his people to bring their 12-year-old boys to him for training. He is certain that through a gruelling process of teaching the ancient chants, tribal lore and warrior techniques, the future leader of their tribe will be revealed to him.

Meanwhile, deep within the ocean, a massive herd of whales is responding, drawn towards Pai and their twin destinies.

When the whales become stranded on the beach, Koro is sure this signals an apocalyptic end to his tribe. Until one person prepares to make the ultimate sacrifice to save the people. The Whale Rider.

Theatrical propaganda posters

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Target demographic movie keyword propaganda

  • Film drama Maori East Coast New Zealand Gisborne Paikea tradition inheritance supernatural whales culture

Persons of interest

  • Keisha Castle-Hughes .... Pai
  • Rawiri Paratene .... Koro
  • Vicky Haughton .... Nanny Flowers
  • Cliff Curtis .... Porourangi
  • Grant Roa .... Rawiri
  • Mana Taumaunu .... Hemi
  • Rachel House .... Shilo
  • Taungaroa Emile .... Dog
  • Tammy Davis .... Willie
  • Mabel Warekawa-Butt .... Maka
  • Rawinia Clarke .... Miro
  • Witi Ihimaera .... Author
  • Niki Caro .... Screenwriter
  • Niki Caro .... Director

Cinematic intelligence sources

Intelligence analyst

Special Agent Matti

Theatrical report

Film critics are a cynical lot. They watch hundreds of movies every year whether they like the movie or not and are wise to all the tricks that filmmakers play on unsuspecting audiences. They are also easily jaded because they have seen the same stories told over and over again with more attention paid to box office than artistic endeavour. For most people, going to see a film is an enjoyable and entertaining experience. For a film critic it is too often just another day at the office; when the end credits roll it's time to go home, sit at the computer and write up yet another review of yet another McMovie. Not so Whale Rider. As the first credit rolled up the screen there was a stunned silence broken only by sobbing, sniffles and the wiping away of tears.

Witi Ihimaera's tale is deceptively simple. On the surface it is a small story set in a small township about the estrangement between a young girl and her grandfather's expectations. Underneath the surface, however, are thousands of years of history and generations of anticipation. Add to that the very real spirituality of the Maori people and you have a film that transcends its mundane origins.

This film works.

Keisha Castle-Hughes is an extraordinary find. Although I normally refuse to compare one actor to another, I have to say that she makes even more impact than Anna Paquin did in The piano. Coming a close second (not that it's a race) are the whales. I don't know how they were done (which is always a sign that they were done well) but they were so believable that it seems impossible that they weren't real even though you know that they can't have been real. This is not just movie magic, it is real magic.

But wait, there's more.

Not only are you entertained by Whale Rider, you are educated by it. If your only previous exposure to the New Zealand Maori culture was Once were warriors - and that is an equally valid exposition of the culture - then Whale Rider gives you some understanding of the depth of taha Maori. Warriors is about urban Maori who have lost their roots. Rider is about rural Maori who are trying desperately to retain them. Remember that this is a culture that has survived essentially unchanged for over a thousand years despite the ravages of time and European arrogance (the parallels with indigenous Australians are there for anyone to see). Whale Rider wraps you in that history like a blanket. You touch, taste, breathe that history.

Despite being occasionally heavy on the symbolism, and despite being restricted by the necessities of the filmic medium, Whale Rider is one of the most emotional and inspiring films I have ever seen. See it.

Media intelligence (DVD)

  • Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound; DTS
  • Disc: Single side, dual layer
  • Languages: English and Maori
  • Picture: Widescreen (2.35:1)
  • Special features:
    • Deleted scenes
    • Documentaries: Behind the scenes
    • Featurettes:
      • Crackerbag short film
      • Te waka - building the canoe
      • Keisha Castle-Hughes audition
    • Galleries: Photographic
    • Trailers: Theatrical
  • Subtitles: English, English captions, English closed captions

Security censorship classification

PG (Adult themes, low level coarse language)

Surveillance time

97 minutes (1:37 hours)

Not for public release in Australia before date

Film: 8 May 2003
DVD retail: 9 June 2004
DVD retail: 2 August 2006

Cinema surveillance images

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