Lee Tamahori, who directed Once Were Warriors, brings Temuera Morrison back to the screen, this time in a family-friendly poignant tale of patriarchy, set in 1950s rural New Zealand and based on a novel by Whale Rider author, Witi Ihimaera. The warm tones, beautiful rendering of the rural life of the time and great characters make this an enjoyable and thought-provoking tale.
The Mahana family and the Poata family have been feuding for as long as anyone can remember. Morrison plays the patriarch of the Mahana family, an authoritarian who believes you have to be tough to survive, particularly if you are Maori. His sons all shear and vie with the Poata clan for work. At the centre of the story is young Simeon Mahana, not quite old enough to work with the men, he rails against the unquestioning acceptance of Grandfather Mahana’s rules. To stand up to his authority though means risking his family and his future.
This is a well-told story and we get to know the family and, through them, the difficulties of being Maori in a land where pakeha have all the power. There is a motif running through this film of the powerlessness of not having a voice, seen first in a beautiful scene where Simeon visits a law court during a school trip. The Maori have no voice in the legal system, women have no voice within family and no one has a voice in the Mahana family except for Grandfather. We see what the repercussions are of such patriarchy.
Occasionally there are overblown moments, too much music, too much told when it could be shown, but overall this is an engaging and moving tale with a beautiful sense of place. I particularly liked the occasional use of Maori language without translation, allowing you to sink into the sound and resonance of the culture, just for a moment.
And talking about Whale Rider, did you know that Keisha Castle-Hughes who played Paikea in the 2002 film and was nominated for an Oscar for her role, can now be seen as Obara Sand in Game of Thrones? Fun fact.
Bechdel test – pass