Whale Rider

I think a lot about girls.

We began the weekend before this one, as we often do, after lighting Shabbat candles and eating, by watching a movie together in our living room on Friday night.  My daughter chose a movie we own and one she has watched before–but something not typical of her choice when given the choice.  She chose Whale Rider.

Whale Rider is the 2002 movie about a young Maori girl who has a dream about learning what are referred to in the movie as “the old ways” and about assuming the role and the power of a chief.  It is a beautiful and deeply complex movie about one version of the brutality of sexism and about a girl who will not give up.  (Make no mistake– I don’t believe sexism is worse in someone else’s country or culture than in yours or mine– just different from place to place.)    The story is a beautiful, complex and very emotional story.  I realized after seeing it, that it has a deep resonance for me, for many different reasons.

It is about rejection and about purpose, about the girl’s complex relationship with her grandfather, who both adores her and also holds her and her dreams in contempt.  Because she is a girl.

The girl in the story is 11.  My daughter is 9.  Paikea (the protagonist in the story) is born along with a twin brother.   Her mother dies in childbirth as does her twin brother, who dies just after birth.  Her father, presumably because of his loss, takes off and leaves New Zealand to pursue his career as an artist in Europe, leaving his daughter Paikea with his parents– her grandparents.  So she loses her birthparents and brother, as did my daughter.  (Although my daughter has found one of her brothers and has him in her present time life.)

Whale Rider is an interesting story for many reasons.  For one, Paikea’s unstoppable, determined desire to learn the old ways and assume the knowledge and skills of a chief, and to participate in things previously reserved only for boys and men, has nothing to do with the things we generally think of as a desire for “power”.  She pursues her goals with absolutely no hesitation and at times in the movie, at grave personal cost.  And ultimately she pursues her dream and in doing so risks paying the ultimate price– her life.

She wants, not dominion over anyone or anything, in the way we think about that idea in Western culture, and what drives her doesn’t seem to be a desire to escape from the pain of sexism although that would also be a reasonable goal.  Rather she seems to want a kind of self-discipline, self-knowledge and connection to her ancestors, a deep knowledge of and connection to the natural world, which was the world of her ancestors.  She pursues the kind of strength and belief in herself that comes with discipline, education of certain kinds and mastery of things that matter to you.

Both of her grandparents are deeply devoted to her.  She adores her grandfather and he adores her.  But her grandfather is steeped in a version sexism, that is, if we are honest, not unfamiliar to any of us who are women.  He is not only contemptuous, but enraged by her desire to learn things that he views as male-only.  And as she pursues these things, he grows angrier and angrier– such that at one point in the movie, her grandmother moves her out of the house for a little while to live with another relative.  Her grandmother adores her and fights for her– and I love the character of both grandmother and grandfather, but her grandmother does not go very far, it seems, in challenging what comes at her granddaughter.  She sees it and she clearly disagrees with it, but the steps she is able to take to truly challenge it are very limited in many ways.  I cried through parts of the movie crying for Paikea, for my daughter and her losses,  and for girls everywhere as well as my own losses as a girl.  This story is one of triumph and redemption, though not all stories of this kind of struggle end this way.

Thinking about it the next day I better understood one aspect of the meaning of my decision to study for a Bat Mitzvah.  I chose this in part because of my desire to have what Paikea wants– the deepest connection to my people, the potential strength that may come of this fuller connection to my past and my people, and the standing, so to speak, to bring my own thoughts about the world and the future, to my Jewish world.

Paikea has an extraordinary well of of resolve  so that there are many interesting moments when she shows this singular purpose, and yet you, as the audience, fear for her, wondering, “at what price will she pursue this?”   Her resolve, her stubbornness reminds me of my own daughter– in ways that I admire and in ways that are not always comfortable for me, nor always easy in our household.  I am so proud of my daughter and I also worry, as a mother, hoping her judgment will be good as she grows older.  I think about the terrible losses of playing it safe and about the losses of some who have not played it safe.

Keisha Castle-Hughes, the actress who plays the young girl, Paikea– was 11 years old and not an actress , when she was “discovered” and cast in the movie.  Besides the power of the story and breathtaking beauty of the people and the cinematography, the movie is very much worth seeing for her breathtaking performance and those of several others of the actors.  I don’t actually know of any other movie about the Maori people and felt honored to have that glimpse that the movie offered.  If you bring a DVD home to watch, be sure to watch the special features as well– all interesting and beautiful– from the information on the amazing special effects to the interviews with Keisha Castle-Hughes and others of the actors.

And tell me what you think.

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