I saw Whale Rider tonight. I was most unimpressed. Yet another movie about a native people struggling to hold on to their tradition while resolving its conflict with the modern world. Yawn.
It's damned hard to tell the difference between this kind of movie when it features Maori, American Indian, or any other native people -- or heck, it could be talking about Italians, Irish, Appalachian, or any other quaint ethnicity. Oh, this one had whales, and the particular chants and dances showed off the richness of the Maori culture.
I couldn't help but compare it to The Fast Runner (also called Atanarjuat), which was a much better movie. That movie, instead of being yet another modern-world-meets-traditional-values, was a straight up movie about the Inuit, with no modern culture at all (it was based on a traditional tale, placed before any Western influence). I believe that's the first movie of its kind I've ever seen, which seems very odd. Were there no stories worth repeating in these cultures before modern influences? Would it be that hard to make one up?
This might be because The Fast Runner was written, produced, and directed entirely by native people, unlike Whale Rider and every other movie about native people (yes, all of them!) In so many others there seems to be this lack of imagination, leading to the same story being told over and over again. That might be unsurprising: if everything is produced by outsiders, who look in on these cultures as charming and quaint, trivially unique, will they really be able to tell stories that are representative of these cultures?
Part of annoyance with Whale Rider might be from my lack of appreciation for the outward traditions of those cultures. The chants, songs, ceremonial dress, etc. -- to me those seem like the most trivial, most petty aspect of the cultures. A good story should give a picture of more than the physical trappings of a culture. That's the difference between a story and a museum display. Whale Rider was just a very pretty museum display.
I think you missed the whole thrust of this incredible movie, based on a novel written by a Maori novelist. If you are looking for a culture completely separated from the world, there are fewer and fewer place that will meet your needs. How communities engage in the world around them is certainly an interesting topic to me. In addition, there were deep philosophical elements involved in this movie. What is truth? How is truth discovered? What role does tradition serve in discerning the truth. Does truth evolve? The girl represents a post-modern conception truth, embracing tradition, but realizing that truth can be discovered in new ways to new generations. Anyway, my two cents.# Pablo