“Sometimes the leader you are searching for is already among you.”
When a film becomes a decade old we often want to know how it stood the test of time by comparing, say, similar films or similar themes. It turns out, that is much easier said than done when a stand out film like WHALE RIDER matures.
Above: Keisha Castle-Hughes in WHALE RIDER Photo: Newmarket Films
WHALE RIDER, winner of 29 awards and nominated for an additional 28, including a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Keisha Castle-Hughes – at the time the youngest actress ever nominated by the Academy – has maintained a 90% approval rating by Rotten Tomatoes. And out of all the indigenous-based films, whether about, by, or for native peoples, WHALE RIDER has above all taken its place as a “mainstream” movie.
So how come? How is it possible in a world where BRIDESMAIDS and THE GIRL WITH A DRAGON TATTOO are seen as women-empowering films that a tale of a girl who would be leader of a far away New Zealand Maori tribe can withstand US sensibilities?
To answer this, let me lead you through some thoughts about our current culture here in the US of A. I am writing this on September 11th, a date now riddled with significance in our country for patriotism, for fighting spirit, for never-giving-uptitude, for nationalized irrational fear of other cultures (particularly the Middle East), and if not the place, then a place to mark the turning of the tide on how women and girls are perceived in the media.
But don’t take my word for it. In a 2011 documentary called MISS REPRESENTATION, filmmakers say this about the topic: “In a society where media is the most persuasive force shaping cultural norms, the collective message that our young women and men overwhelmingly receive is that a woman’s value and power lie in her youth, beauty, and sexuality, and not in her capacity as a leader. While women have made great strides in leadership over the past few decades, the United States is still 90th in the world for women in national legislatures, women hold only 3% of clout positions in mainstream media, and 65% of women and girls have disordered eating behaviors.”
No woman wants to whine about how in the last ten years that even comedy is meaner, with women and girls featured as the brunt of ill-spirited jabs, jokes, puns, and gags. And when we do look to films these days, especially for girls, the closest we get to a hero is Katniss Everdeen — and even she had to fight her way out of both a ridiculous and dangerous world before she was respected by the community at large. Sort of.
Americans love certain story themes above all others: pulling oneself up by their bootstraps, the scrappy warrior, gaining power either through warlike means or cunning, the unsung hero, (explosions and helicopters), and following your heart no matter what.
And while WHALE RIDER is mercifully depleted of helicopters and explosions, it does touch on all of the other things we US-ians hold dear. That women and men hold dear. The only thing that quietly rises above the themes of power, society, status, personal strength, and skill – is character. Identity. Being who you are no matter what your gender, no matter what your culture tells you you cannot be. Because I’m here to tell you girlfriend: You CAN ride that whale.
Everyone should see this film, either again or for the first time. Take the kids. If for no other reason than to remind yourself that films can be excellent even when they are simple, that people and tales from across the globe can be as meaningful to you as ones in a fantasy realm on your computer, and that girls rule.
And bonus—it’s showing at an outdoor venue, in Santa Fe, under our fabulous night sky—on blankets (and folding chairs) with others who are looking for a tribe and a reason to believe again. Just like you. Plus whales.
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The Santa Fe Film Festival presents a 10th Anniversary screening of WHALE RIDER, An Award-winning Film by Niki Caro, Friday, September 14th, 7-10:00pm (film starts just after sunset) at the Santa Fe Railyard Performance Green
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