Whale Rider directed by Niki Caro, written by Caro, based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera, produced by John Barnett, Tim Sanders and Frank Hübner, with Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Cliff Curtis and Vicky Haughton. 105 minutes. An Odeon Films release. Opens Friday (June 13). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies Rating: NNNNN
bet you've heard these before: "I want to make films that make a difference." "It's not about the money." "It's an honour just being nominated." Time-honored Hollywood niceties, regularly tossed about. Uttered by that hot new indie star or that self-effacing wunderkind director, they're filmdom's equivalent of that relationship-breaker "It's not you, it's me," which is to say no one really believes them.
But we sure do like the way they sound, and, coming as they always seem to with the designer wardrobe and the house in the hills, its just nice to think they're sincere.
So why trust New Zealand director Niki Caro when she tells me, on the phone from New York, where she's promoting her movie, "Hollywood has never been my nirvana"?
The answer is, she could actually mean it.
Caro's second feature film, Whale Rider, has won awards in San Francisco, Rotterdam, at Sundance and the Toronto International Film Festival, and industry vets are already predicting Oscar nominations.
An adaptation of Witi Ihimaera's moving novel about a young Maori girl's attempt to find herself in a traditionally male-centred culture, it's a beautiful and powerful film. But I can't help but think of the last Maori-focused film, Once Were Warriors, that met with critical success. Surely, Caro will go the way of its director, Lee Tamahori, who went on to helm Along Came A Spider and Die Another Day.
Caro sees the similarities between the films - "Both opened up opportunities to tell stories not just about the Maori, but about all indigenous people" - but though she's not condemning those New Zealanders who leave home (Tamahori, Peter Jackson, Jane Campion), she's not setting up camp in la-la land any time soon.
"People are always surprised at the wonderful films that come out of this little country," she says in a shy voice, "but there's so much here to inspire us." Modestly, she adds, "It's been good to me."
And it has. After carting home multiple awards for her work in television, Caro made her first feature film, Memory & Desire, also set in her homeland. Gorgeously made, it's a jarring tale of an ill-fated Japanese couple on their honeymoon. It had the fearlessness of her previous nervy work, which looked at everything from fetish footwear to suburban anxieties. Unafraid to tackle death, sexuality and class conflict, Memory & Desire was selected for Critics' Week at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival and voted best film at the New Zealand Film Festival.
Her short films, also shot locally, have met with similar acclaim, and Whale Rider is the first movie produced with investment from the New Zealand Film Production Fund.
For a movie like Whale Rider to work, it needed to be authentic and true to its culture. Before it could be made, Caro and the producers approached the chief leader of the Whangara. The Maori community was so impressed with the plan for the film that they approved and even encouraged locals to participate as extras.
Caro tells me, simply, "I go where the stories are," but it soon becomes clearer why she seems so keen to stay Down Under. Respect for the maintenance of Maori traditions is not the only New Zealand influence. Caro says the feminist narrative that casts a girl as hero is firmly rooted in New Zealand society.
"Of course, as a woman and a director I wanted to send that message that we can try, and succeed, in what is traditionally thought to be a man's world. But I want to stress the importance of where I come from. New Zealand was one of the first nations to let women vote. Women currently serve in three of the highest positions in government here."
The novel, it should be said, was written by a man and told originally through the eyes of an uncle. Caro's adaptation allows its young charge, Paikea, to be both the heart of the film and its storyteller.
"Witi's was a great book, but, no offence to him, it was a little set in its time. I approached it as an opportunity to explore the role of women. It's really important right now to recognize this young girl needing to know who she is and being so sure of that identity. I can remember being a young girl, and that helped when I was trying to bring the film into today's times."
But don't be fooled by the feel-good story about that little director who could. Women don't get to make films unless they have drive, grit and ego, and Caro knows it. Asked which character she identifies with - brave Pai or Koro, her stern King Lear-type (but more intelligent) grandfather, who stubbornly clings to tradition and refuses to accept Pai's leadership abilities - Caro laughs ruefully.
"As a woman in a leadership position, it was a very sobering moment for me when I realized how much like Koro I could be. At my best I may be Pai, but at my worst I'm Koro."
Whale Rider Review
Whale Rider (Niki Caro) Rating: NNNNN
Maori legend has it that 1,000 years ago the great Paikea rode a whale to safety. Whale Rider unfolds in the present as a new Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes), the 11-year-old granddaughter of chief Koro (Rawiri Paratene), fights to prove to Koro and to herself that, despite being a girl, she has what it takes to be a leader.
The cast is excellent, particularly the regal Paratene and Vicky Haughton as his supportive but prickly wife, but it's Castle-Hughes who drives the picture. She speaks volumes just through her eyes.
No wonder festival audiences at both Sundance and Toronto gave Whale Rider their highest honours. It's visually stunning.
In the hands of a lesser director it could have been just another young girl's coming-of-age story in which our sweet but determined heroine ignores naysayers to go after her dream while everyone learns a little something about themselves along the way.
But Niki Caro proves that a film like this can inspire without being syrupy, teach lessons without preaching and explore a culture vastly different from our own in order to show just how similar we all are. She's pulled off a real coup: this is a feminist film both women and men can love.