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Whale Rider; Rapa Nui

13 Mar 2017Film Essays

Whale Rider

Not just the words through the movie, the narration by Kahu, but the music that moves with the shadows and light in the ocean, has an overwhelming emotion with which the viewer may identify. When the narration begins, it is Kahu who says, “There was no gladness when I was born”. These words are witnesses of events to happen. This is no story which begins with joy, but a tale where great hardship must happen first so that when the joy does come, the audience knows what a battle it was to get it, and how much more rewarding it is after such tribulation.

Kahu’s story, her birth, marks the death of her mother and twin brother. Her twin was supposed to be the next leader of the Maori tribe. Her name is also an affront, her great grandfather believes, to the faith and tradition of the tribe. It is a blasphemy to their ancestor the great Whale Rider, who was male. The altercations which arise between Kahu’s father and great grandfather isn’t mainly between one’s acceptance of a belief and the other’s denial of it, but also of Kahu’s mother’s wish to name the child after that great ancestor, and so begin Kahu on her journey.

The powerful moments in this movie are the singing in the Maori tongue. When Kahu sings to the whales, when Koro sings, and especially the shattering feeling of love that is conveyed through their singing during a funeral. There is a specific bond in the words. They carry their dead with their songs, which seem to be saying we will find you soon, we will join you in our ancestral home.

The entire film is teeming with the concepts and ideologies of ancestors. When Koro is fixing an engine outside one day, Kahu comes up to him asking questions about her ancestors, for a school project she’s working on. He tells her that the link of their ancestors is as strong as this piece of rope, just as the whales are strong and powerful. With that strength of the entire lineage of ancestor’s the rope can never be broken. It is significant then that the rope breaks and while Koro is trying to find a new one, Kahu fixes it and fixes the engine. This is the predecessor of events to come. Kahu’s link in the chain is the link, which is the strongest, the one that will again unite the ancestors and whales to the needs of the current culture.

All in all, the movie is very compelling both in narration, dialogue and the plot. It is the singing, the landscape, and the inclusion of the Maori language, which makes this film a New Zealand work of art. The history of the people is given fair study and sincerity. The union of the people at the end of the movie becomes part myth and part reality in the components of beached whales, and the resurrection of Paikea in a young girl, riding the bull whale out to sea to save her culture. The surprising factor in the movie is the maturity of Kahu, her diligent advances in the Maori culture and the way in which she tells the story is beyond her keen, but it works, her sad voice over such a beautiful landscape is compelling and honest. Kahu makes the film about a legendary myth, a reality waiting to happen.

Rapa Nui

Rapa Nui is also a film about legends, myths, and culture. The culture of the film is what really drives the plot into action as the Rapanui legends of Easter Islands is the main focus. The culture of the film is seen in the Sooty Egg hunt and the race to construct in record time a Moai. However the real plot of the story is love. The forbidden love between a couple belonging to different tribes which may be similar to an Easter Island Romeo and Juliet and as with most stories it is this tension of forbidden love which spurns the story onward.

Although the interest in the love story is a major part of the film, it is the scenery and the culture and landscape of the film which is entirely enthralling. The great expanse of land hovered over by great (and real) Moai is the staple of the film for the movie watcher. Even the with watching the opening scenes of the film, these statues are shown and the importance of them to the development of the story is well cemented in the viewer’s mind. The plot would not be able to progress, the love story would not be that interesting nor tragic were these statues not included (also, the race to erect them is what pulls the entire story together) and because they are an integral part of the Easter Island culture it makes the film that much more authentic.

It is the erection of the statues that allow for the short ears freedom; and freedom in an enslaved culture (according to the movie) is what will allow for the love to flourish among the couple. There seems to be a fair amount of racism in the film between the long ears and the short ears which adds a great tension to the film as well. Tupa (a long eared) wants to erect his statue first so that he can have Ramana as his wife, but Make (a short eared) has the drive and desire to free his people. It is this freedom that dominates the film instead of the love story.

An element of the film that is disheartening is that the film production crew didn’t go into detail with the native dress. In fact, the film borrowed from the culture of Maori tribes and other tribes in order to dress the cast. Although the landscape and the statues and the long and short eared elements tied into the myths and legends of Easter Island, this lack of detail to the culture was disheartening. Even though there is love, a civil war, and the fight for freedom as plot devices in the film, everything a movie-goer wants to see, this ‘borrowing’ from other cultures, lessens the authenticity of the film to such a degree that it ceases to represent the culture of the Easter Islands. In this lessening, the value of the film as a representation of another time and race causes the movie-goer’s suspension of disbelief to wear thin and they are no longer invested in the outcome of the film. Despite this major drawback, the film does an overall good job (not a great job) in delivering a succinct story that keeps the viewer’s attention through civil war, hate, omens, and love.

Works Cited

  • Rapa Nui. (1994). Kevin Reynolds. Easter Island, Majestic Films International. [video: DVD]
  • Whale Rider. (2002). Niki Caro. New Zealand, Apollo Media. [video: DVD]

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