[Marxism] Whale Rider: tradition and change

Philip Ferguson plf13 at student.canterbury.ac.nz
Wed Mar 3 23:09:51 MST 2004

I had to head off home last night, so didn't finish all of what I wanted 
to say about 'Whale Rider'.  So. . .

One of the key apsects of the film is the tension between tradition and 
change and how this might be resolved.

In the film there is a sharp rupture with tradition, by a girl becoming 
chief whereas the tradition is that only males can.

However, the *means* through which she becomes the leader, reaffirms 
tradition.  Namely, she does everything that a male would have to do, 
and does it even better. . . and then some (like riding the whale, which 
no male has ever had to do since the founder of the tribe).

So the film represents the need to rupture tradition sometimes, but it 
also reaffirms tradition by the rupture being made in a way that 
conforms with tradition.

Witi Ihimaera is an interesting writer.  While he's very emotionally 
attached to his local Maori area and his Maoriness - part of his 
ancestry is Ngati Porou - he's also quite cosmopolitan.  He was 
originally a NZ diplomat.  He's also gay and wrote the first gay Maori 
novel, 'Nights in the Garden of Spain'.  It's one of his lesser known 
works, I should imagine, in part because its setting is urban, nuclear 
family middle class Maori rather than a more traditional extended family 
Maori group in a rural area.

At the other end of the spectrum of Maori writers is Alan Duff, author 
of 'Once Were Warriors'.  'Warriors' is set in south Auckland, a 
sprawling mass of working class suburbs with a large Maori and Pacific 
Island workers and poor.  It was made into a very successful film by the 
same name.  It's fairly brutal, as the main character, 'Jake the Muss', 
is a violent wife-beater and one of the children is raped by an 'uncle' 
and ends up committing suicide.  It's basically about the underbelly of 
the urban Maori underclass.

'Once Were Warriors' and 'Whale Rider' are kind of interesting to watch 

Unlike Ihimaera, Duff had a turbulent, rough childhood, was in prison 
for robbery and violence and so on, before turning into a fairly 
economically right-wing (neo-liberal) columnist and novelist in his 
middle years.  Socially, Duff is liberal.  He also set up a programme 
called 'Books for Schools', to provide free books for under-privileged, 
especially Maori, kids in school.

So Ihimaera is the urbane, sophisticated one, but with a strong 
attachment to core apsects of traditional Maori culture, spirituality 
and so on.

Duff is rough as guts, non-urbane and hostile to traditional Maori 
culture which he sees as allowing incompetent hereditary rule and 
holding Maori back.

Ihimaera is, stylistically, the far superior writer.  Duff's writing is 
awkward and lacks any polish but does have a kind of raw appeal.

Anyway, if anyone on the list is especially interested in NZ and/or 
things Maori and wants to explore some Maori literature, try Ihimaera's 
novels, maybe starting with 'The Matriarch' and take a look at Duff's 
'Once Were Warriors'.  Also, back in the 1980s, Keri Hulme's 'The Bone 
People' won the Booker Prize.  It's rather hard-going in parts, partly 
the violence and partly the long descent into mysticism in the second 
half of the book.  (Hulme identifies as Maori, although she's one of the 
whitest people I've ever seen and I think some other Maori writers are 
not over-impressed with the amount of Maori ancestry in her background.)
'The Bone People' is pretty bleak, and she hasn't written much since - 
only a book of short stories in the following 15 years, although she 
maybe did a new novel in the past couple of years.

Philip Ferguson

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