Full screen
Video quality

Low 0 MB

High 0 MB



Whale Rider

Film (Trailer and Excerpts) – 2002

Parental Guidance

A Perspective

Based on Witi Ihimaera's novel of the same name, Whale Rider follows Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), a spirited young Māori girl who challenges her staunchly traditional koro (Rawiri Paratene) to claim her birthright and become leader of her tribe.

The title of writer-director Niki Caro's first short film Sure to Rise seems prophetic. Coupling a specific sense of place and culture with a universal coming of age story, Whale Rider met with sizeable success worldwide.

"The genius of the movie is the way it sidesteps all of the obvious clichés of the underlying story and makes itself fresh, observant, tough and genuinely moving" wrote American critic Roger Ebert. Rolling Stone's Peter Travers described Whale Rider as "a film of female empowerment that resonates deeply."

Whale Rider's journey to screen was not a quick or easy one. The rights to Ihimaera's novel were acquired by producers Murray Newey and John Barnett in the early 90s. The screenplay went through multiple drafts. At one stage Ian Mune was attached to direct.

It was almost a decade after the novel was originally optioned that Niki Caro took up the reins, under the umbrella of Barnett's company South Pacific Pictures. "I read all the previous drafts but they didn't speak to me." Caro says in one interview. She rewrote, focussing on the relationship between Pai and her koro; old and new forms of leadership.

Producer John Barnett recalls "I always believed that Whale Rider's themes are relevant to societies and cultures throughout the world. What she [Caro] did was so fantastic, we offered her the opportunity to direct the film."

Seen by over 850,000 New Zealanders, Whale Rider was also an international hit, winning the People's Choice award (from 344 films) at Toronto, and a standing ovation, and the World Cinema Audience Award at Sundance. And the accolades kept on coming. What's more, Whale Rider was a financial triumph: in the United States it made $21 million at the box office (excluding Peter Jackson's Hollywood epics, a record for a New Zealand feature). It also fared well in Australia and at home making A$8 million, and NZ$6.4 million respectively.

A New Zealand-German co-production, Whale Rider's success also lifted the New Zealand film industry's international profile. And it provided a lyrical alternative vision to the Once Were Warriors-dominated perception (gritty, violent, urban) of Māori culture.

Eight years before Whale Rider, Lee Tamahori's Once Were Warriors had unflinchingly depicted the plight of urban Māori, economically disenfranchised and dislocated from the land and their culture. What Warriors has in fire, Whale Rider has in water. Cinematographer Leon Narbey's camera is constantly swung seaward, evoking the spiritual relationship between the ocean and the Ngāti Konohi people.

Ngāti Konohi legend tells of how their ancestor Paikea rode from Hawaiki to Aotearoa, on the back of the whale. This mythic element is threaded through the narrative. As in Warriors, the potency of a people's connection with their history and environment is the fundament of the story.

There was some resistance to Caro, a Pākehā, telling a Māori story. "The Māori have a very high bullshit detector," said Caro in an interview with website Indiewire. In order to make Whale Rider, she first needed to gain the trust of Ngāti Konohi; they had to know she could tell their story, and she needed to understand them in order to successfully tell it. She succeeded.

Caro shot the film in the small East Coast settlement of Whāngārā, the novel's original setting. Its seaside pace and Narbey's restrained palette of East Coast blues and greens, recalls Barry Barclay's Ngāti, another strong Coast story. Many of the extras and some of the smaller parts were played by local Māori. "I got nothing but incredible love and support" says Caro.

Picked by casting agent extraordinaire Diana Rowan, Castle-Hughes, who was eleven at the time of shooting, shot to international prominence for her performance in the lead role as Pai. In 2005 she was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress, the youngest person to be nominated in that category.

The pivotal scene where Pai performs a school speech dedicated to her Koro (Rawiri Paratene) is deeply moving. Her Koro's empty seat powerfully states his absence, and Castle-Hughes's evocation of Pai's courage, disappointment and defiance, is palpable. This is superb cinema.

Caro's efficient and assured negotiation of the pitfalls of a "feel good" story got her noticed. All the big moments are honestly won. Though her first feature Memory and Desire had won Best Film at the NZ Film Awards, and had shown at some international festivals (including Cannes), Whale Rider catapulted her into Hollywood; now a director of international renown, she was able to pull some serious star power. Her next feature, North Country, starred Charlize Theron; it was another story of someone told what she can't do because she is a female, who rises up to prove otherwise.

Whale Rider shows the confusion of a culture in transition, asks how the old ways work in with the new. It ends on a note of hope: Pai's father Porourangi's half finished waka, which had sat idle and rotting throughout the film, is launched on sparkling blue calm. Pai puts it like this:

"I'm not a prophet, but I know our people will keep going forward, all together, with all of our strength." 

- Catherine Bisley is a writer and filmmaker.

If you liked this, you might also like...


NZ Book Collection

This collection features screen adaptations from New...


Top 10 NZ Feature Films

NZ On Screen has selected an all-time NZ feature film Top...


Kiwi Oscar Heroes

A collection of films that have seen Kiwis winning glory...


The NZ Film Commission turns 40

A collection celebrating 40 years of the NZ Film...


Thirty Years of South Pacific Pictures

From Marlin Bay to Westside — and so much more in between...


The Coming-of-Age Collection

From The God Boy to Boy, plus singers, whale riders and...

The Silent One

Another relationship between a child and a sea creature

Behind the Scenes of Whale Rider

Making of documentary


Actor Rawiri Paratene and a dolphin

The Lost Whales

Documentary about southern right whales

Kaleidoscope - Witi Ihimaera

Film about Whale Rider author Witi Ihimaera


Another tale of a Māori East Coast childhood


Cliff Curtis's first lead role in a feature film

The Day Morris Left

A short film starring Rawiri Paratene

Bad Note for a Heart

Straitjacket Fits music video directed by Niki Caro

E Tipu e Rea - Variations on a Theme

Short drama featuring Rawiri Paratene

Ngāti Porou East Coast 2001 - True Colours

A documentary on an East Coast community and their rugby...


Directed by Niki Caro

The Wall

Directed by Whale Rider’s casting director Diana Rowan

The Vintner's Luck

Also starring Keisha Castle-Hughes and directed by Niki Caro

For Arts Sake - Waiora

Rawiri Paratene also stars in this play

The Insatiable Moon

Rawiri Paratene stars

Joe and Koro - High Society

Also starring Rawiri Paratene

Illustrious Energy

Directed by Whale Rider cinematographer Leon Narbey

Old Bastards

Short film directed by Niki Caro

Va Tapuia - Sacred Spaces

Also shot by Leon Narbey

The Orator - O Le Tulafale

Also shot by Leon Narbey

Kaitangata Twitch - First Episode

Another determined young female Māori protagonist

12 Bar Rhythm 'n Shoes - Series Two, Episode One

Also features Vicky Haughton

Kiwi Flyer

Kiwi kids’ movie

Aroha: A Story of the Māori People

An earlier tale of a Māori woman caught between modernity...

Mt Zion

Another generational culture clash

Arriving Tuesday

Also stars Rawiri Paratene

White Lies

From the same producer and author

Nights in the Gardens of Spain

Another adaptation of an Ihimaera story

The Dark Horse

Also stars Cliff Curtis

The Almighty Johnsons - First Episode

Also stars Castle-Hughes

Among the Cinders

Another NZ-Germany co-production

Frontseat - Who Can Play Māori

Discussion on actors playing other races and iwi

The Graffiti of Mr Tupaia

Also starring Rawiri Paratene


Documentary about a musical project inspired by Witi...

The Painted Lady

A short film also starring a child actor

Beyond the Known World

Another international coproduction

Witi Ihimaera: Roimata Toroa

Witi Ihimaera returns home

Swagger - Series Four, Episode One

Swimming with whales off Tonga

Ngā Tamatoa: 40 Years On

Rawiri Paratene presents this 2012 documentary

Winners & Losers: Big Brother, Little Sister

Another adaptation of a Witi Ihimaera story

A Whale Out My Window

More whales

in beTWEEN - Politics

Rawiri Paratene talks about whales in this kids show

Aroha - Irikura

Cliff Curtis acts in this teleplay