I realized yesterday that I haven't been posting my thoughts about the movies we've watched weekly for my "Faith & Film with Young Adults" class, so I thought I'd catch us up for the next few days, unless something else strikes me as more important to write about. So here are my thoughts on "Whale Rider":
A young girl is born into a Moari community in New Zealand that is struggling to hold onto its traditions and values while adapting to modern life. Her grandfather, the chief, believes ardently that a prophet-savior will come to help their people, and he expects it to be his grandson, but his grandson dies at birth, while his granddaughter lives and is named Paikea—the name reserved for male chiefs after their first ancestor, the Whale Rider, who brought their people to New Zealand. Paikea is that prophet-savior but her grandfather will not see it until she rides a whale, almost dies, and is returns to life, taking on the role of the next chief. Major themes include: how to combine tradition and present culture, the role of women, ideas of “destiny,” and struggles for love and acceptance by one's family and community.
I noticed this movie has some very “Christian” themes (Messiah-type savior, death and resurrection, a misunderstood savior who must be sacrificed for the good of the community but who will return and reign, signs for those who have ears to hear, etc.) although I don't think they were meant to be Christian. It is about reinterpreting tradition to fit the modern context.
I love the sweet spirit of the girl who plays Paikea. I love that in the midst of a situation of repression against women and of her grandfather trying to destroy her dreams, she holds strong and believes in herself. Her grandmother has a huge part in this, supporting her unobtrusively but strongly. I liked that the community, gradually at first and then with more momentum, took on the hope and the prophetic spirit of this young girl. It's not very realistic, perhaps, but having that hope is important.
For the class we're supposed to note which scenes we thought were holy moments: When the grandfather broke the rope he was using to explain the interconnectedness and strength of the community, and then Paikea tied it together and started the motor. Of course the moments where she could hear the whales were literally holy to her, and when she rode the whale her character was involved in an overtly mystical experience. When she spoke in front of the community at her school concert, in honor of her grandfather. When her grandfather's cane, the symbol of his leadership, floated away into the ocean. The ending, the hope of new life and a re-meaning of the community and its traditions.
Although it's hard to see cultures and traditions changing, I think it's great when cultures can adapt and grow, gaining perspectives that were lacking in their history (such as respect for women and allowing women to hold official leadership roles). This is a painful process, and I know that it's incredibly difficult to know where to draw the line on changing, and which traditions are so important for the self-identity of the community that they cannot be changed. I pray for the ability to be flexible as I encourage changes, and as I get set in my ways and want to keep things from changing.