Understanding Whangara: Whale Rider as Simulacrum
For those with neither pen nor sword, the movie camera has proven a mighty instrument. For centuries, colonized aboriginal people depended upon oral tradition to preserve their language and creation stories – the pith and marrow of every culture – but with the advent of the 20th century and documentary films like Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North and Moana, a new medium emerged to champion their cause. Now filmmakers are turning from the documentary depiction of these indigenous cultures to their languages and creation myths, furthering a cinematic tradition and exploring an entirely new genre (Garcia 2003a: 16) Ulrich Koch’s 1998 film The Saltmen of Tibet, which ethnographically chronicled the spiritual journey re-enacted each year by Tibetan nomads “marked a turning point” (Garcia 2003a: 16) in film production because of its anthropological intent. That is, the film attempted to explain in a text understandable to a western audience, the complexities, mores and customs of an-‘other’ culture. Many films with similar ethnographic underpinnings followed, such as Zacharias Kunuk’s (2001) Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner), Phillip Noyce’s (2002) Rabbit Proof Fence and Niki Caro’s (2003) Whale Rider, to the extent that these films and others of the same ilk have clustered to form an increasingly popular genre. The growing attention and curiosity of the global film audience with the indigenous subject is, thus, a phenomenon worthy of investigation. Often indigenous films are referred to as sites of resistance, where indigenous groups are able to maintain their autonomy in the age of globalisation. To some degree, this reasoning explains why many Māori champion films such as Whale Rider and Once Were Warriors, for at least they give recognition to their social existence and consciousness against a modernity and colonial era that has denied them a historical and political presence. It is possible, then, that the indigenous film denies the meta-narratives of the Enlightenment and interrupts modernity’s secularisation and progress, allowing for other ways of knowing the world and alternative forms of culture to be foregrounded and legitimated. Yet, the mere centring of indigenous and alternative subjectivities does not guarantee a subaltern voice. We should not merely accept Whale Rider, described by one film reviewer as “a gorgeous fable from New Zealand about the balance between the old and new worlds, tradition and progress, superstition and faith”, on face-value (Cline 2003). Conversely, I would align with Mäori filmmaker Barry Barclay’s assessment of the film as an “indigenous film for beginners” (cited in Calder 2003: A2), meaning that Whale Rider lacked both the depth and complexity needed to examine an alternative knowledge system and, basically, presented an immature text that will ultimately be more harmful to Mäori culture than good.
Keywords: Indigenous; Film; Whale Rider; Patriarchy; Baudrillard; Niki Caro; Witi Ihimaera; Brendan Hokowhitu; Te Tumu; University of Otago; Maori; Maori film
Research Type: Journal Article
Permission kindly granted to reproduce this article given by the New Zealand Journal of Media Studies editorial board.