Most of the film centers on the dynamic of this relationship between Koro and Paikea. Paikea respects and admires her grandfather, and holds a deep and mysterious connection with the tribe s ancestral line; particularly her namesake, Paikea the Whale Rider, who was the first of his people to arrive in New Zealand, after journeying from Hawaii on the back of a whale. The young Paikea spends the bulk of the film fighting for her grandfather s approval and acceptance. She holds great reverence for the Maori traditions of old and is prolific in many of the cultural songs and dances, which others of the younger generation find irrelevant. She is exceptionally proud of her heritage and is finally given the opportunity to prove herself when a pod of whales become beached on the local shore. Seated atop the largest of the whales, Paikea is able to lead the pod back to sea in the tradition of her ancestor. Though she nearly dies, her strength, courage, and supernatural appointment as future chief is enough to convince Koro of her leadership abilities, and a new generation of Maori is given hope and guidance for the future.
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The traditions of the Maori people play a pivotal role in this film. The plot lines and conflicts that surround these traditions are manifested differently in each of the unique characters of the film. For example, the eldest generation, that of Koro, still holds fast to the more traditional Maori cultural beliefs and practices. The evidence of this can be seen throughout the representation of this grandfather or chiefly character.
From the outset of the film, Koro, is primarily concerned with the continuation of the royal bloodline via the arrival of a grandson. When only his granddaughter survives, he is not only bitter towards her, but he is also preoccupied with remedying the situation for the sake of his people. He is not only adamant in upholding the patriarchal leadership tradition, but the tribe-chief dynamic, in general, that many in his society have abandoned in practice and principle. Still clinging to this way of life, he and members of the elder generation take action in an attempt to fill the leadership void. It is decided by the elder council that a school, dedicated to the traditional teachings and cultural elements once so vital to Maori society and leadership, specifically, be opened to the male youths of the community. Here, Koro may conduct a formal search for the next tribal chief, while adequately equipping all male candidates with the knowledge and practice of many forgotten Maori traditions, such as chanting, dancing, and the use of a taiaha. In keeping with the culture s traditional views on gender and leadership, Koro instills a male-only admittance policy for the school, despite Paikea s interest and adeptness in the customary traditions. When Koro finds Paikea hanging around the school, at one point in the film, he accuses her of stealing the tapu or sacredness of the school grounds and the ongoing teachings. At this moment, the seriousness of tradition and the weight these beliefs hold in regards to, not only Koro s, but also the entire elder generation s worldview can be fully grasped. The believed implications of the failure to uphold these traditions are evidenced further when none of the young male pupils are able to meet Koro s expectations. Koro becomes distraught to the point of physical sickness and resigns himself to mourning in bed for days on end. When Koro learns of the beached whales, he again displays the extent of the influence of his beliefs by assigning supernatural cause/blame for the incident. And, in the end, it is only the supposed overriding of one aspect of tradition by the supernatural realm that allows him to compromise and accept the role of his granddaughter in leadership. Paikea s spiritual connection with her namesake and her ability to harness the power of the whales is, in Koro s eyes, a supernaturally ordained exception to the patriarchal leadership tradition, and is therefore permitted in its unique context.
The middle generation, that of Paikea s father and uncle, provides a much different point of view in regards to the relevance of Maori cultural tradition within modern-day society. Although the audience isn t given any indication of Paikea s father s adherence to Maori tradition before tragedy strikes, it is safe to say that once the simultaneous birth and deaths within his family take place, his emotion quickly overrides all regard for a cultural belief system. As opposed to Koro, whose emotions are dictated by tradition, Paikea s father gives more weight to his personal feelings and less thought to the cultural consequences of his decisions. He demonstrates this fact, first and foremost, by naming his daughter Paikea; the sacred family name meant to denote the male heir. Secondly, Paikea s father abandons his family, community, and homeland altogether to live and work abroad in Western Europe. This disregard for the values, which the elder Maori generation hold dear is evidence of the continually lessened grip of cultural tradition upon this middle generation.
Likewise, Paikea s uncle, a member of this second generation and once proud warrior, proficient in the art of the taiaha, has abandoned all practice of Maori tradition in favor of a more lax and leisurely lifestyle. He is visibly opposed to his father s leadership and jumps at the chance to show his disregard for the tribe and Maori tradition by giving Paikea taiaha lessons. The tradition that dictates the elder generation s lives and actions has been completely cast aside in all aspects by the middle generation, and provides the central conflict of the film the void in leadership and lack of purpose and guidance within the Maori people.
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It is from the youngest generation, in the form of little Paikea that a solution presents itself. While the majority of the younger generation is following in their own fathers footsteps and choosing to cast off Maori tradition, Paikea sets off down a different path. Alone, for the most part, and eager to gain acceptance from her grandfather, Paikea develops an interest in those things that Koro holds dear to his heart. She adopts his love for the many cultural traditions, which he sees as, not only relevant, but paramount to Maori life. She develops a deep sense of pride regarding her heritage, to the point of winning a countywide contest with a speech on her ancestral line. She also takes it upon herself to memorize many of the traditional Maori chants and dances. In this way, her intense desire to be accepted and loved leads to a resurrection of Maori tradition within the younger generation. Through her example, and ultimately the brave act of whale riding, which leads to her acceptance as future chief, she sparks a cultural revival within this modern-day Maori community. As one of the lone members of the younger generations still respectful of the traditions of old, she comes to signify hope that these traditions will, in fact, continue to be upheld in the future. This promise that is upheld in Paikea s strength and bravery unites the generations once again under the banner of the Maori heritage.
The film ends with members from all three generations participating together in Maori custom by setting out to sea in a traditional longboat. This last scene is not only significant in the fact that it showcases the once separated generations together again within the context of cultural tradition; but, also that Maori tradition can progress and evolve as needed, in order that it may be preserved for future generations.
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