LOS ANGELES – As 13-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes, star of “Whale Rider,” fidgets through the seeming endless Oscar awards Feb. 29, someone should whisper to her the wise words of an old boxing coach. “Whether or not you get to be champion is a matter of luck,” he would tell his trainees. “The real achievement is getting to be a contender.”
As the youngest person ever nominated for Best Actress, Castle-Hughes, a part-Maori, suburban New Zealander with no previous movie experience, has already achieved more than most adults could ever dream of. But her personal work, which fully deserves the Oscar, is part of an even greater achievement by the producers, writers and cast of the New Zealand film “Whale Rider.” (The Maori title is “Te kaieke tohora.”) The film itself is not entered in the best movie category, yet it has probably done more to present the contemporary indigenous experience to more people than anything we can remember seeing in a theater.
Perhaps some will object that the people who made the movie, notably producer John Barnett and writer-director Niki Caro, are not indigenous. Maybe so, but they have striven to remain true to the spirit of the original book “The Whale Rider” by the Maori writer Witi Ihimaera and of its real-life setting, the village of Whangara, on New Zealand’s East Coast. Beyond the professional cast members, the villagers take all the roles in the movie. The village claims descent from Kahutia Te Rangi, a chief in the ancestral homeland of Hawaiki who traveled there across the sea on the back of a whale and was given the name Paikea after his voyage. The indigenous spirit not only survives the translation to film, it permeates Caro’s excellent adaptation.
But the film isn’t about the ancient legend. It is about an indigenous community trying to preserve its identity in all the stress of Euro-centric modern life. Its scenes resonate strongly with daily life on the North American rez and with the universal modern indigenous experience. Witi Ihimaera, now one of New Zealand’s leading literary figures, gives a notable account of the way he came to write the story. In spite of its mythic roots, it was inspired by a scene he witnessed while living in New York City, from the 33rd floor window of his West Side apartment. Awakened by the chop-chop of a helicopter, he watched in astonishment as officials tried to turn around a whale that was swimming up the Hudson River as far as Pier 86 at West 46th Street.
The scene was a reminder of the Ancient Ones in the middle of one of the world’s noisiest cities. Ihimaera spelled out the message in a speech Koro Apirana, the gruff great-grandfather, gives in the meetinghouse of Whangara as the mystical old whale beached himself on the shore. Once, Koro, said, “man, beasts and Gods lived in close communion with one another.”
But as man grew in arrogance, “he started to drive a wedge through the original oneness of the world. In the passing of time, he divided the world into that half he could believe in and that half he could not believe in.” The appearance of the whale was a reminder of “the oneness the world once had.” Even more, it was a test. If the tribe could return it to the sea, “then that will be proof the oneness is still with us.
“If it lives, we live. If it dies, we die.”
This speech is not in the movie, but the climactic scene catches the power of the moment in a way that truly transcends the limits of the modern European mind. One can imagine a Disney version with up-swelling soundtrack and cheering onlookers. Instead the villagers watch in grief and terror, chanting the dirge as the young girl goes to what seems like certain death.
The movie captures a sense of this communion that has been suppressed by European modernity and trivialized by new age mysticism. The human mind often grasps this oneness only after intense physical self-sacrifice and amid the greatest terror. Although 20th century theologians have written on this theme, it seems that it has been left to the indigenous peoples of the world to preserve the direct personal experience in all its weight and glory.
In the movie, even more than in the book, this burden falls on the shoulders of the young girl played by Castle-Hughes. (In the book, Kahu, as she is named there, is only eight, and the burden of the narrative falls to her uncle Rawiri, whom Ihimaera makes a member of a motorcycle gang.) The makers of the movie acknowledge that its success depended on a miracle of casting. (The casting director Diana Rowan also discovered Anna Paquin, the youngest person ever to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, for her work in “The Piano.”)
Castle-Hughes, whose character is named Pai in the movie, is of Ngati Porou, Tainui and Ngapuhi descent but she was raised in a suburb of Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, along with two brothers and a two-year-old sister by her mother Desrae. She attends Penrose High School and keeps a poster of Orlando Bloom, Legolas the elf from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, on her bedroom wall. Interviewers call her level-headed and wise beyond her years, but the national acclaim has been so overwhelming since her nomination that her agents are trying to limit press access.
Her role in the movie speaks for itself, however, The younger generation of any people can’t fail to be inspired by her determination to carry on the culture in spite of all obstacles. This is an achievement and an honor far greater than anything that the Motion Picture Academy can bestow.