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M. Leary

Whale Rider (2002)

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I agree with what you said earlier, if she had died at the end, the film would have been much more powerful.

Bleh!!! If you know a little bit about the author of the book Whale Rider you would realize this was written for her daughter who complained that heros are always boys/men. Wouldn't be much of a hero for a little girl if she died tho. By your logic, the movie would have been even MORE powerful, if seeing the death of his granddaughter and realizing his own misjudgements caused it, Koro commits suicide, thereby damning the entire Maori people to a future without hope. Lovely...

I don't think the point of the movie is about saving a culture or a people. It was about the turning of opinions and beliefs and about finding strength. Sorry, but I have to strongly disagree with the "bad ending" thread herein. Some are served better by such an ending, not in this case... It would not have advanced the central story of the film: Pai and Koro. The cultural context is necessary and a SUB story (and great for culturally deprived Americans) to the character story of the 2 leads.

Keisha is an AMAZING actor...see it for nothing else if you must!

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LA SPOILERS CONTINUETH...

By your logic, the movie would have been even MORE powerful, if seeing the death of his granddaughter and realizing his own misjudgements caused it, Koro commits suicide, thereby damning the entire Maori people to a future without hope.  Lovely...

NO NO NO. You missed the point. The same miracle took place whether she lived or died. The people still have seen what happened and it's up to them to usher in that sense of tribal hope they were looking for. Nobody said anything about Koro commiting suicide or the people losing hope. I think the changes still would have been made regardless of her life or death. It's just that the awesome, dramatic scene where she finally rides the back of that whale is lessened by the Return of the Jedi muppets dancing and chanting "The universe is saved," for an apt comparison. It leaves the transcendence of the verisimilitudinous miracle and heaves up a trite happy ending. Might as well have wrapped it up and stuck a bow on it for mainstream audiences and 40-year-old soccer moms who go to the theater for escape rather than artistic voyage.

It was uber-uncool to tack on the "Christ figure on the third day" scenario. Too predictable, too contrived, too over-used, too cliche, and way unnecessary to the further development of the film.

-s.


In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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Ditto. Thanks Staf.


"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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Staf.

No problemo, Leery.

-s.


In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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FINALLY saw WHALE RIDER tonight. Delayed so long because I had an unshakeable feeling I wanted to see it with my daughters, and we just couldn't seem to line ourselves up all at one time to make it to the cinema.

I thought the inner "see it with your daughters" imperative was just because it was a "girls can do it" movie, but it turned out to be so much more. Darrel Manson puts his finger on it in his Hollywood Jesus review;

It is a story about perseverance, faith, and calling. It looks with great respect at tradition, but also sees that the limits of tradition can be transcended.

I think you've nailed it there, Darrel - and particularly the first half of that came into play for me tonight. (Your references to Harry Potter and Neo are right on the money, in that regard.)

Turned out my older daughter didn't end up being able to come with us after all, but not knowing how much longer this would be screening here, I decided I'd just head out with Katie and sort the rest out later. Well, as we sat there together sharing popcorn, Coke and the movie, I really felt God's Spirit stirring powerfully inside. Reminding me of a number of ways I've seen some remarkable gifts in Katie, a sort of annointing that is very much like the girl in the film. And it became very clear to me that I needed to tell Katie these things.

So after we got home, once she'd settled in to bed, I sat on the edge of her bed and spoke of all that. Talked about the ways this girl's "calling" resonate with the Christian sense of calling, about the parable of the talents, about spiritual gifts. And talked about some of the specific things I've seen in her - at four, at ten, at twelve, and now - which strike me as uncanny. Divine gifts. An annointing. And prayed for her.

These sorts of interactions may be commonplace in other Christian families, but not in ours, I'm afraid. Tonight was a rare and beautiful thing.

So, that's what WHALE RIDER meant to me. In strictly artistic terms, I was very pleased by the movie, and astounded by Keisha Castle-Hughes: for my money, that public speech paying respect to her absent grandfather put her in Haley Joel Osment SIXTH SENSE territory for me.

But clearly, when I think back to WHALE RIDER, I'll never be remembering it in strictly artistic terms.


I've posted a couple hundred of my Soul Food Movies write-ups at letterboxd

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Check it out.

AUCKLAND (AFP) - A pod of 12 sperm whales, some 10 metres long and weighing up to 12 tonnes, have beached themselves on Auckland's west coast and died.

The whales, thought to be mostly females with a young calf, were stranded over a five kilometre (three mile) stretch of beach at the mouth of Manukau Harbour, drawing a crowd of about 1,500 curious onlookers Sunday.

It was not clear why the animals became marooned but it was "a significant stranding event" of sperm whales, the like of which had not been seen for 20 to 30 years, Department of Conservation (DOC) officer Karl McLeod.

Professor Scott Baker of Auckland University, who has taken DNA samples to carry out genetic testing on the animals, said the theory of whale stranding was that one animal, possibly a herd leader, got into trouble and the rest followed.

"Sperm whales are deep water animals rarely seen close to the coast but once a family member gets distressed they seem to follow the herd leader," he said.

Sperm whales are designed to float in the ocean and when out of water their extreme weight crushes their internal organs and they die under the pressure.

"Once they are on the beach, it's all over," he said.

Despite a round-the-clock security operation to deter poachers after the whales were found Saturday, one of the animals was butchered for its jawbone.

McLeod said teeth from the jawbone could be worth up to 200 New Zealand dollars (126 US) each.

But DOC was allowing a team of specialists to remove jawbones from the rest of the whales.

Auckland region DOC boss Rob McCallum said cutting out the jawbones could take up to three days and burial in the sand dunes another two.


In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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I just saw this yesterday and having searched for "whale" and read the opinions on this and Big Fish (something I'd meant to do since I saw it a month ago at Greenbelt) _ find myself in near agreement with Stef on both.

Big Fish - some memorable fairy tale images, but bland - I can't recall the son'd name or face a month later. (FWIW I thought the closing scene largely substantiated Dad's tales and that that was the point - the Son had considered him a complete liar up to that pooint - but that's another thread).

But Whale Rider wow - amazing imagery & I wept more than I have for ages in a film - and in a few places.

I wanted to comment on the predictability of the film & the ending. It was really clear from the start that the film would be resolved by Pai riding on a whale. I'm not sure that that is predictability - more that it telegraphs its ending so you enjoy the mood of the film and what the film is really about the relationships and changing traditions. Similarly because of the use of voiceover - we knew Pai wasn't going to die. In terms of endings I think the ending was a bit "hollywood", but better than her dying. She has to live for the story to work itself out. Pai is essentially the re-embodiment of the original whale rider, who takes his / her people into a new place, with new hope for the future and a new "land" after the commmunity has hit what looks like the end of the road (whatever happened to make them leave their original location must had been pretty desperate as well).

If Pai dies then the tradition has been showed the way forward - but its still without a leader - and that is both what the film and the community think is still required - a new leader. The miracle , if you like affirms the path of men or women being appropriate leaders, but it still holds that a community leader is needed.

I think the best ending for the film would have bee during the whale riding scene - we know the grandfather's reaction, but there would be an element of ambiguity.

But the performances were fantastic - the Grandad would have been so easy to make 1 dimensional, but here was a guy I really felt for and could understand Pai's affection for, even inspite of the tradiaions he was wrapped in. And the best thing about the ending sequence (which I would have cut) is when he has the humility to call his own, previously rejected granddaughter, wise leader, and put himself far below her.

Just a beautiful amazing haunting inspiring film - where's my 2003 top 10 list?

Matt

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I just saw this yesterday and having searched for "whale" and read the opinions on this and Big Fish (something I'd meant to do since I saw it a month ago at Greenbelt) _ find myself in near agreement with Stef on both.

That is because you, in near agreement with me, are also a near genius. Congrats on your ascent.

-s.


In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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FYI: PBS is showing Whale Rider on July 24.

Edited by Diane

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Resurrecting this thread to say that I finally watched Whale Rider for our consideration of the Top 100, and I definitely found myself having had the same reaction as Jeff, Andrew, and a few others from nearly two decades ago: disappointment. Some of the final images—y'know, the actual whale riding—were striking, but only in that they weren't as blunt-edged and formulaic as nearly everything else preceding it. For those who resonated with the film's message and aesthetic (M. Leary may be the only one still active here, but Matt Page, Ron Reed, and Stef Loy seemed to highly praise the film), has this film held up for you?

An anecdote: a few years ago, at the largest academic conference for scholars of religion, I witnessed a paper presentation on Whale Rider as seen through the lens of Christian theology, which made Pai into a "Christ figure" who was "baptized" in her retrieval of the necklace in the ocean, and experienced a salvific death and resurrection in the final scenes of the film (the whale riding!). It was a classic example of imposing one's religious ideas onto a film in order to somehow "redeem" it, seeing "Christ figures" everywhere. In the Q&A following the paper, a Kiwi scholar of religion pointedly asked the presenter if he had even considered that indigenous spirituality and religion might be a better hermeneutic for understanding the film. She graciously, but firmly, inquired as to whether he had done any research on Kiwi religion at all, pointing out that his interpretation was the equivalent of a sort of religious colonialism/imperialism. The presenter squirmed, and admitted that he had not considered this at all, but "would love to answer your question afterwards" before moving to the next person. I don't know if he ever sought her out afterwards, but he certainly didn't publicly apologize for his errors. What made this even more ironic was that the presenter had opened up his talk with a spoken acknowledgement of the indigenous lands where the conference was being held (which, afterwards, felt more like virtue signaling than actual honoring of indigenous culture). It was one of the strongest real-life examples I have ever seen of academic myopia in the film-and-religion discourse which allows for and excuses bad interpretations of cinema, a sort of blinkered way of interpreting films through a personal hegemonic lens without even considering what the film (or filmmaker) is saying for itself.

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4 hours ago, Joel Mayward said:

 For those who resonated with the film's message and aesthetic (M. Leary may be the only one still active here, but Matt Page, Ron Reed, and Stef Loy seemed to highly praise the film), has this film held up for you?

I was one who agreed with Stef Loy, in particular, and with M. Leary, Matt, and Ron in general. I taught Whale Rider in my Postcolonial Lit class last year, and would say that it held up well. I appreciated seeing it again, and student comments noted it as one of their favorites out of the four films on the syllabus, particularly for the portrayal of Maori culture in a 20th century post-colonial New Zealand setting--with Pai's determination to take up her destined leadership role as part of that post-colonial negotiation.

Going back through this thread, I noticed some complaints about the acting in the film (except for Keisha Castle-Hughes, whom everyone praises--and she became the youngest person nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, FWIW). It often seems to me that, with a few exceptions, assessments of acting are quite subjective. What one person sees as naturalistic, another views as wooden; what one sees as emotionally invested, another views as exaggerated.


There is this difference between the growth of some human beings and that of others: in the one case it is a continuous dying, in the other a continuous resurrection. (George MacDonald, The Princess and Curdie)

Isn't narrative structure enough of an ideology for art? (Greg Wright)

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Thanks, Beth (and my apologies—I somehow missed your comment of praise on the first page!). I think I entered the film with the expectation that the narrative would center more on Pai, but she's often relegated to the sidelines in more ways than one, giving much more attention to her grandfather. And as much as I appreciated the various depictions of Maori practices, I also felt like I didn't get a sense of place or world for Pai's community (perhaps that's intentional? to make the viewer feel like an outsider looking in?), like what various buildings or locations meant, and how the characters negotiated their post-colonial identities within those places, and how the filmmaking itself was exploring those places (i.e. shot composition, lighting, and particularly the conspicuous soundtrack). I perhaps expected something less conventional overall. But I can see its appeal.

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I think I'm with Beth on this one. It's surely not in my personal Top 100, or even "ideal" A and F Top 100 (not that I've even tried to narrow down such a list) but I think it would fit well on the list as a spiritually significant Pacific Islands film. I think this thread has a great discussion of its strengths and weaknesses, but I don't hold its conventionality or how it might have been better against it too much. Sure, I wished I'd gotten more about the character's post-colonial identities, but what's there is good (to the extent I remember) and I guess I wasn't expecting much more. A focus on that might have been at the expense of the family dynamics that the film emphasizes, which is one of its strengths.

On 4/27/2020 at 4:44 AM, Joel Mayward said:

An anecdote: a few years ago, at the largest academic conference for scholars of religion, I witnessed a paper presentation on Whale Rider as seen through the lens of Christian theology, which made Pai into a "Christ figure" who was "baptized" in her retrieval of the necklace in the ocean, and experienced a salvific death and resurrection in the final scenes of the film (the whale riding!). It was a classic example of imposing one's religious ideas onto a film in order to somehow "redeem" it, seeing "Christ figures" everywhere.

 

On 4/27/2020 at 4:44 AM, Joel Mayward said:

It was one of the strongest real-life examples I have ever seen of academic myopia in the film-and-religion discourse which allows for and excuses bad interpretations of cinema, a sort of blinkered way of interpreting films through a personal hegemonic lens without even considering what the film (or filmmaker) is saying for itself.

Joel, you were there and I wasn't, and you're a very charitable reader, so if it was that bad, I believe it. but this sounds like a legit argument to me, not just an imposition onto the film. I do think that the film has some Christ figure elements/conventions that are in the film itself, and Stef gave a very similar reading earlier in this thread. One could make the argument exegetically rather than eisegetically, no? I don't think you're saying that Christian theology as a lens is necessarily hegemonic or incompatible with non-explicitly-"Christian" subject matter, right? or that Christians shouldn't look for examples of what I would say are Christian truths or resonances in farflung places? Perhaps it was the setting that made it inappropriate? It is surprising that the Maori religious elements were ignored, especially at a conference about religion, when (for instance) the whale rider origin story of the people is pretty central, if I recall. 

On 4/27/2020 at 4:44 AM, Joel Mayward said:

In the Q&A following the paper, a Kiwi scholar of religion pointedly asked the presenter if he had even considered that indigenous spirituality and religion might be a better hermeneutic for understanding the film. She graciously, but firmly, inquired as to whether he had done any research on Kiwi religion at all, pointing out that his interpretation was the equivalent of a sort of religious colonialism/imperialism. The presenter squirmed, and admitted that he had not considered this at all, but "would love to answer your question afterwards" before moving to the next person. I don't know if he ever sought her out afterwards, but he certainly didn't publicly apologize for his errors. What made this even more ironic was that the presenter had opened up his talk with a spoken acknowledgement of the indigenous lands where the conference was being held (which, afterwards, felt more like virtue signaling than actual honoring of indigenous culture).

That said, this is pretty cringe-worthy. I hope it was a learning (or unlearning) experience for that presenter. I know I've had some moments of being corrected in this way (though not as dramatically or publicly) that I've been very grateful for.

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3 hours ago, Rob Z said:

Joel, you were there and I wasn't, and you're a very charitable reader, so if it was that bad, I believe it. but this sounds like a legit argument to me, not just an imposition onto the film. I do think that the film has some Christ figure elements/conventions that are in the film itself, and Stef gave a very similar reading earlier in this thread. One could make the argument exegetically rather than eisegetically, no? I don't think you're saying that Christian theology as a lens is necessarily hegemonic or incompatible with non-explicitly-"Christian" subject matter, right? or that Christians shouldn't look for examples of what I would say are Christian truths or resonances in farflung places?

I think one could make the argument exegetically, but my issue is that usually Christian scholars of religion approach such films with a posture of supposed "dialogue" where their theological hermeneutic ends up having both the first and final word in interpretations of the film, without necessarily allowing the film to speak for itself. Such "dialogue" ends up becoming a "monologue" where the theologian or religious film critic uses the film to illustrate their theological/religious viewpoint. And that's what this particular paper felt like, especially in the admission that the scholar had not engaged with researching the Maori religious beliefs at all. So, I think I *am* actually saying that Christian theology is often employed as a hegemonic lens, a sort of "theological imperialism," to use a phrase my doctoral supervisor uses. But I also do think that divine truths and resonances can and do appear in ostensibly non-religious cultural works, which can be discerned in a Christian way.

I do take your point—there are Christological resonances in Whale Rider in the character of Pai, and one could make a valid interpretation about the film in this way. But I would question any view of the film that only or primarily viewed Whale Rider in this way, because I'm not at all convinced that the film or filmmakers are doing this, i.e. presenting Pai as a clear Christ figure, rather than a savior figure in Maori spirituality and culture.

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6 hours ago, Joel Mayward said:

I think one could make the argument exegetically, but my issue is that usually Christian scholars of religion approach such films with a posture of supposed "dialogue" where their theological hermeneutic ends up having both the first and final word in interpretations of the film, without necessarily allowing the film to speak for itself. Such "dialogue" ends up becoming a "monologue" where the theologian or religious film critic uses the film to illustrate their theological/religious viewpoint. And that's what this particular paper felt like, especially in the admission that the scholar had not engaged with researching the Maori religious beliefs at all. So, I think I *am* actually saying that Christian theology is often employed as a hegemonic lens, a sort of "theological imperialism," to use a phrase my doctoral supervisor uses. But I also do think that divine truths and resonances can and do appear in ostensibly non-religious cultural works, which can be discerned in a Christian way.

I do take your point—there are Christological resonances in Whale Rider in the character of Pai, and one could make a valid interpretation about the film in this way. But I would question any view of the film that only or primarily viewed Whale Rider in this way, because I'm not at all convinced that the film or filmmakers are doing this, i.e. presenting Pai as a clear Christ figure, rather than a savior figure in Maori spirituality and culture.

Thanks for drawing out these helpful distinctions, Joel. I can see how it could be a fine line between employing a hegemonic lens (Western as well as Christian) and trying to discern truth from a Christian perspective. I am sympathetic to attempts to find the movements of Christian truth (maybe call it the Holy Spirit working) in non-Western cultures because that means that Western, imperialist impositions aren't necessary or an essential part of the Christian package. But that has to happen in dialogue or it just becomes a form of triumphalism, and that's hard. If it were easier, I think there would be a lot of Christian Buddhists, Christian Muslims, and Christian animists (and so on) in non-Western contexts without much contradiction. Sadly, history is against this.

Playing "spot the Christ figure" could be a kind of Christian virtue signaling, too, that could "cover" for an imperialist reading, which I think is just as hypocritical as a land acknowledgement followed by a lack of engagement with the indigenous religion in the foreground of the film.

I'm actually interested now in what that true dialogue between Christian theology and the Maori spirituality and culture could reveal, taking the film as a starting point, but I fear it's been too long since I've seen the film to try to draw anything out. 

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Rewatched this today. I think I am on the plus side (maybe a 4 in regards to 2020 viewing), but I'm not sure if I'm all in just yet. 

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post about whether or not "Christian" films were  judged by a double standard. I was thinkinga  about that, because I spent portions of the film asking myself how I would be responding if the movie were of commensurate quality (writing/filmcraft) but about Christian culture. There are films like those of the Erwins (think Mom's Night Out or Woodlawn) that are a cut above Sherwood or Pure Flix but which really distance themselves from those films in tone -- they don't always have (for me) the triumphal condescension of a God's Not Dead or a Courageous. Call it addition by subtraction. 

Whale Rider is, for me, essentially a domestic melodrama -- about a family and its relationships. Those relationships are embedded in a cultural context that takes time to depict spirituality, even if it doesn't necessarily interrogate it. It depicts it enough to explain the motivations of characters and the seemingly intractable nature of their interpersonal conflicts. In that respect, the film it most reminded me of was Joel Edgerton's Boy Erased, and I am pondering whether my preference for Edgerton's film can be attributed to something more/other than that the familial melodrama prompted by religious values is more familiar or its effects more draconian. (That latter point is even more questionable...I mean, it's easy for me as a straight, white male to adjudicate the damage done by homophobia and patriarchy, but is Pai less oppressed simply because she does not feel herself to be so?) 

That being said, I don't know that I could talk myself higher than a 4. My favorite scene is unquestionably the speech at the school, and Pai's assertion "It's nobody's fault, it just happened" illustrates,  perhaps, the film's inability to integrate its understanding of the familial conflict with compassion or insight or understanding of the underlying spiritual assumptions that feed it. There is certainly a suggestion that the younger generations are more apt to be malleable in their beliefs about the tradition, and I  think it is unquestionable that this is portrayed as a good thing. The film *respects* the grandfather, but it respects him in the sense of "I respect your right to be wrong -- and I'll build drama around the climax where you are confronted with just how wrong you are." 

Also, from a film perspective, I contrasted the filming of the rescue of the whale with the final scene of Ordet. I'm not exactly going out on a limb to say Niki Caro, as competent as she is, is no Carl Thedor Dreyer. The cuts between the whale and some prop (for close ups) has continuity errors in the size and placement of the barnacles, and each cut releases some of the tension that should otherwise be building. It isn't a surprise or wonder when Pai mounts the whale -- it's a foregone conclusion. It's still emotionally...satisfying (at least for me), but it lacks any real spiritual wonder or dramatic uncertainty, which mutes the reaction. The film foregrounds its movie-ness at just the wrong moment, in my opinion.

So right now, this second, I'm a plus vote, but we've got another week to chew on things, right?

 

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