I first saw Whale Rider at the 2003 Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), and it inspired me to pursue my—seemingly far-fetched, at the time—dream of a career in film, as well as a lifelong love and appreciation for New Zealand cinema.
I cannot recall any other films I saw at SIFF that year. Truthfully, I can’t even remember the venue where I watched Whale Rider. But I do remember the film changed my life. It was my first experience at an international film festival and my first time seeing such a strong and powerful portrayal of a young woman fighting for her destiny at all costs.
“In a small New Zealand coastal village, Māori claim descent from Paikea, the Whale Rider. In every generation, a male heir has succeeded to the chiefly title. When twins are born and the boy twin dies, Koro, the chief, is unable to accept his granddaughter, Pai, as the future leader. Koro is convinced the tribe’s misfortunes began at Pai’s birth and calls for his people to bring their sons to him, certain a new leader will be revealed. Young Pai loves Koro more than anyone in the world, but she must fight him and 1,000 years of tradition to fulfill her destiny.”
Whale Rider spoke to me in a way no other film had before. Because even when you are a grown up, sometimes that little discouraging voice that says “girls can’t do this, and girls can’t do that” still pokes its head out from time to time. I have a very special place in my heart for this film, because it finally and definitively gave me permission to tell that little voice to be quiet for good.
Almost exactly a decade after seeing Whale Rider, I applied for and accepted the full-time position of associate director for the Indiana University Cinema—a job where I have the privilege of elevating and celebrating women directors from all backgrounds and the stories they tell.
I was honored to share Pai’s story with our audiences, and I hope film lovers for years to come will be inspired by Niki Caro’s storytelling.