Challenging weighty traditions

“A long time ago, my ancestor Paikea came to this place on the back of a whale. Since then and every generation of my family, the first-born son has carried his name and become the leader of our tribe. Until now.”

Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), a 12-year-old Maori girl, opens the film “Whale Rider” with this statement of her dilemma. She is the first-born girl.

Her grandfather, Koro (Rawiri Paratene), and his wife are raising her. Koro loves her dearly, but he considers her unlucky. She survived while her twin brother died at birth, and there is now no male in the family to carry on tribal traditions. To make sure that these traditions are passed on is his prime responsibility, and in his view, must surpass even his love for his granddaughter.

Pai’s journey is to find her place in this Maori society. She learns traditions that are forbidden to girls. She strives for acceptance. Her family’s journey is one of hurtfulness and forgiveness. As with all mythic journeys, people become wiser along the way.

A beautiful film, with a Maori cast and shot in New Zealand, “Whale Rider” has won many awards. It is recently out on DVD and if you are interested in mythology, anthropology, or women’s rights or just love whales, it’s a truly wonderful film. If you prefer reading, it is based on the book, “The Whale Rider” by Witi Ihimaera.

The author can be reached at kmoy@pww.org.