Directed by Niki Caro
Written by Niki Caro, from a book by Witi Ihmaera
Starring Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene
Like many small countries, New Zealand’s film industry is small* and few of their films make it to the US. Despite being English-speaking, they have the curse of being considered “foreign films,” so few people go see them. But one of the most successful was the powerful coming-of-age film, Whale Rider.
It’s the story of Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), the granddaughter of a village leader, who is the descendant of Paikea, a legendary figure who came to the village by riding a whale. Tradition says that the position is passed on to the eldest grandson of the previous leader, but Pai not only has the misfortune of being a girl and thus ineligible, but her mother and her fraternal twin died in childbirth and there are no more siblings. Her grandfather (Rawiri Paratene) blames her for the deaths, and, when she shows some interest in becoming the next leader, refuses to let her try it because of her gender.
The movie hinges on Keisha Castle-Hughes. She was 13 when the film was shot, but produced a bravura performance. She was nominated for a best actress Oscar, the youngest person at the time to get that honor, and it was certainly well deserved.
Overall, it’s a story about triumph over hide-bound thinking, and a joyous film to watch.
*Lord of the Rings was shot there, but it was not a New Zealand film any more than Star Wars was a Moroccan film.