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CARO, NIKI: WHALE RIDER

RIDING THE SPIRITS
Based on a 1000 year old legend, Whale Rider is New Zealand’s latest hit, and its director, Niki Caro reckons that’s because people all over the world are in need of spiritual connections, she tells Andrew L. Urban.


She has sat in cinemas and watched beefy, heavily tattooed Maori men weep at her film, Whale Rider; how’s that for feedback. “I’ve not had any bad responses,” says Niki Caro so quietly it’s almost a whisper. “There are a couple of things on the internet that dismiss the film as a ‘girls can do anything’ story,” she says, but in New Zealand the film was still the Number One film at the box office after 10 weeks, so she feel buoyed and appreciated. By the way, the film isn’t a weepy, just highly affecting for Maoris. Read on.

It’s early on a Monday in Sydney, and we’re talking above Circular Quay in a small hotel suite. Caro, smaller than her photo suggests, is conservatively dressed, perhaps a little reserved, but clearly elated by the success of her second film. Her debut feature, Memory & Desire, was selected to screen in the 1998 Critics Week at Cannes, and was voted Best Film in the 1999 New Zealand Film Awards. Her short films and tv work have all earned her a high profile and several awards.

"based on an ancient folk legend"

Whale Rider, based on a book by Witti Ihimaera and pursued by producer John Barnett for a decade, is based on an ancient folk legend, and the modern story resonates not only with Maoris, but with anyone open to the language of cinema. 

The people of a remote coastal village in New Zealand, frequented by whales, trace their ancestry back to Paikea, The Whale Rider, and in every generation a male heir has succeeded as chief. When twins are born and the male one dies, Koro (Rawiri Paratene) the grandfather whose chiefdom the boy was to inherit, refuses to accept the girl, his granddaughter, as a future chief. Koro gathers all the sons of his people in a vain effort to find the next chief, while his granddaughter (Keisha Castle-Hughes), now 11, has grown up quietly determined to fulfil her destiny. When a pod of whales beach themselves, it’s as if the ancestors are listening . . .

“People are taking their children, children are taking their parents….I sit amongst the audience sometimes and I’m blown away by the differences in ages and styles …. Like these staunch, tattooed, intimidating Maori men weeping, then you’ll see an Asian family with their children. The big payoff for me,” she says, “is that it was a very risky thing to take on for a white, young female filmmaker. I was obsessed not with how well the film could do, but with how well I could do my job.”

She even learnt Maori before starting on the production. “That was amazing. I absolutely feel a part of Maori culture now. I didn’t before.” She is appalled at how most New Zealanders “massacre” the Maori language when using the few words that have oozed into common usage. “When I began to learn Maori, a whole world opened up to me. A world of song, performance and legend; and the kindness of these people.”

"perhaps an even greater thrill"

Niki Caro’s obsession was justified and in the end, satisfied, and satisfaction was her goal for the people she describes as the real owners of the story, the Maoris. But perhaps an even greater thrill for her is hearing white folk respond to the film, with a sense of genuine connection: ‘that’s where we come from’.

Whale Rider, I wrote in my review, “gives us the sort of spiritual resolution this poor world needs.” Caro’s filmmaking interest has always had a spiritual element, but she agrees that the film’s time is now. “I don't think the world was ready for it 10 years ago. I think we’re ready to accept things spiritual...”

Caro also believes that the story of Whale Rider chose to be told on film; “As a filmmaker I wish to make a connection with my audience. I want to tell stories that deserve to be told … and do things that are new. I am not that preoccupied with the craft of it to just do it, to just make a film for the sake of the process.” But she is adamant and emphasises that she is “not new age!”

She takes her work seriously, works intensely and gives her all physically, emotionally and spiritually, “as well as the investment of the people who love me ‘cause they never see me!” she adds. 

Caro is already working on yet another adaptation, from The Vintner’s Luck - a book by veteran New Zealand novelist Elizabeth Knox, a wonderfully imaginative tale, set in the 19th-century French countryside, of the long enduring, loving relationship between a man and an angel. Spiritual? “Oh yeah! But it’s very earthy!” she laughs. “Way much more about being human than about being divine.” (And it’s shot on earth, not in heaven…Middle Earth, if you like.)

"We’re going to hell in a hellcart"

As to why audiences have responded to Whale Rider’s spirit, Caro has a simple reply. “We need to! We’re going to hell in a hellcart,” she says, referring to the collective ‘we’ of the human race. “What I’m learning with this film as I take it around the world is that audiences are craving …. This. We need to connect emotionally; we need to believe in something, feel hopeful about something beyond organised wisdom or religion. The organisation of faith has failed us. In this increasingly technological world we are encouraged to be individualistic and self serving.” 

And that pretty much tells us why Niki Caro makes movies.

Published May 8, 2003

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