12 Jan 2017

52 great films by women: #1 Whale Rider

From Widescreen, 2:50 pm on 12 January 2017

Dan Slevin is watching a female-directed feature film every week during 2017 in support of #52filmsbywomen: First up Niki Caro’s Kiwi classic Whale Rider (2002).

Keisha Castle-Hughes became an instant star – and Academy Award-nominee – after Whale Rider, her debut film.

Keisha Castle-Hughes became an instant star – and Academy Award-nominee – after Whale Rider, her debut film. Photo: South Pacific Pictures

Last year, as a response to figures showing how poorly represented female filmmakers were in production statistics all over the world, film fans on social media got behind a remarkable hashtag - #52filmsbywomen. The more films by women that were being rented, streamed and watched in cinemas, the more likely female directors would get more, bigger and better assignments.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way just yet so the campaign isn’t over. For reasons too boring to list here, I didn’t feel able to do commit to watching 52 films by women in 2016 but was very keen to do so this year, especially as my other 2017 project (the Sight & Sound Top 50 films of all time) contains so few women-directed pictures that it was going to skew my figures to an alarming degree.

Because life is too short to re-watch films just to complete a hashtag project I have decided that all the films this year will be new to me. I’ll also be restricting my selection to fiction – the gender balance in documentary is still poor but not quite as egregious. And finally, my wife’s response when I suggested this project was, “I don’t want to watch rubbish just because it’s made by a woman” so we’ll be attempting to prioritise quality wherever possible.

So, here goes. I might as well start with the most embarrassing omission in my personal catalogue.

#1 Whale Rider (2002)

I’m not sure what I was doing in 2002 that meant I never got around to watching Niki Caro’s Whale Rider – I wasn’t reviewing and wasn’t working in cinemas. During that brief period of being a normal citizen I think I consciously reacted against the films that everyone was seeing (at the time it was the biggest local film ever at the New Zealand box office and still holds the record for worldwide box office receipts for a New Zealand film).

In any case, I just never got around to it and then it became one of those films that you feel like you’ve seen, if you know what I mean. I’ve even owned it on Blu-ray (thanks to one of those periodically excellent Warehouse sales) for a couple of years but was waiting for the right moment. And that moment is now.

Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes) and Koro (Rawiri Paratene) in happier times.

Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes) and Koro (Rawiri Paratene) in happier times. Photo: South Pacific Pictures

The first surprise was that I hadn’t known that Caro adapted Ihimaera’s novel herself. I had in my typically sexist sort of way assumed that someone like Graeme Tetley (who wrote Out of the Blue with Robert Sarkies) had been on it. Caro’s script is beautifully spare; the narration does just enough to give you some context but her visual storytelling does the rest.

Second surprise was that the film doesn’t demonise Koro (the grandfather played by Rawiri Paratene). I mean, he has his moments but there are also scenes where he shows real love and affection for his granddaughter Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes) and the sense of a family that still cares for each other despite circumstances pulling them apart is a lovely thread running through the whole thing. You root for them.

All the performances are very fine but Castle-Hughes stands out a mile. What an introduction! The scene which I’m sure got her all those votes from the acting branch of the academy, her speech at the school prize-giving, is a spectacular example of how powerful it is when a person is trying to hold their emotions in rather than just blubbing them out. That, after all, is our job.

Niki Caro’s first feature, Memory & Desire (1998) will feature on this list later on, as will her third (and her introduction to Hollywood) North Country (2005). I interviewed the great character actor Richard Jenkins in 2008 and he told me that working with Niki Caro on North Country was his best movie-making experience ever. In 2009, Caro released the misfire The Vintner’s Luck, which seemed to stall her career for a while but recently she has seen success with the Disney sports movie McFarland, USA (with Kevin Costner) and has the Diane Ackerman adaptation The Zookeeper’s Wife due for release later this year. Late last year she was rumoured to be on the shortlist for the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Captain Marvel – for the first time a female superhero is to get a Marvel film of her own.

You can find Whale Rider online (legitimately) at the New Zealand Film Commission’s streaming site, NZ FILM On Demand, and it is still available on DVD and Blu-ray (which I highly recommend) direct from producers South Pacific Pictures. Every home should have one.

Paikea in the unfinished waka that is the metaphor for the village’s loss of mana.

Paikea in the unfinished waka that is the metaphor for the village’s loss of mana. Photo: South Pacific Pictures

#52filmsbywomen2017 is a project encouraging film lovers to seek out and enjoy films made by women. Dan will be posting one new review a week throughout 2017.