AFI Movie Club: WHALE RIDER – American Film Institute
Whale Rider Film Still - Keisha Castle-Hughes



Based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera, WHALE RIDER – adapted and directed by Niki Caro – tells the story of a spirited, young Māori girl, Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes), who challenges her grandfather and over a thousand years of tradition to become the next leader of her tribe.

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WHALE RIDER – Reelgood

Watch this exclusive video from the AFI Archive in which director Niki Caro talks about making WHALE RIDER:



DID YOU KNOW? The film is based on “The Whale Rider” by New Zealand author Witi Ihimaera, who is the first-ever published Māori novelist. He was inspired to write the novel by his two young daughters, who felt disheartened that many movies they saw showed strong boys and more reliant girls. Ihimaera also served as an executive producer for the film adaptation.

DID YOU KNOW? Casting director Diana Rowan who selected actress Keisha Castle-Hughes out of 10,000 children also discovered another young New Zealander named Anna Paquin – who took home the Academy Award® for Best Supporting Actress for THE PIANO.

DID YOU KNOW? Although writer/director Niki Caro is a “pakeha” (a New Zealander of European descent), she studied the Māori language for a year, received the blessing of the Ngati Konohi tribe and had a Māori advisor from the tribe with her at all times.

DID YOU KNOW? WHALE RIDER producer John Barnett said, “the novel was set in Whangara and it would almost have been heresy to shoot anywhere else. There are physical things that are described in the book – the sweep of the bay, the island that looks like a whale, the meeting houses, and of course, the people whose legend we were telling.”

DID YOU KNOW? Young actress Keisha Castle-Hughes is of Māori descent, but grew up as a city girl in Auckland, New Zealand. After receiving the role of Paikea, she said, “I had to learn to be more of a tomboy. The first thing I had to do was take my shoes off. It was a big thing for me.” Writer/director had Castle-Hughes be barefoot for the entire shoot of the movie as is common in Māori tradition.

DID YOU KNOW? With the announcement of the 76th Academy Awards®, Keisha Castle-Hughes became the youngest Oscar® nominee ever for Best Actress. Quvenzhané Wallis, who was later nominated for BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD in 2013, now holds this distinction.

DID YOU KNOW? While WHALE RIDER marked writer/director Niki Caro’s second feature, more recently, she filmed the most expensive movie ever directed by a woman – Disney’s live action remake of MULAN.

The movie doesn’t end at the credits: Family-friendly Discussion Questions

Join the conversation on Twitter and Instagram now using #AFIMovieClub. Or post your responses in the comment section below.

-How would you describe Paikea? Why does she think she can become the next leader of her tribe?

-Why is her grandfather set against the idea? How does he justify his belief system?

-How is Paikea set up as a contrast to her grandfather as a leader? What makes for a successful leader within the Māori tribe? How are Pai and Koro a study in similarities and in contrasts?

-How do the women in the film deal with the patriarchal nature of their tribe? How is gender a catalyst for conflict and change throughout the film?

-What is the Māori’ tribe’s relationship to the natural world, and what do you think whales represent to them?

-What did you learn about Māori culture after you watched the film? What role does cultural conflict play in the film? Can cultures evolve without losing their unique identity?

-How do you feel about a “pakeha” (a New Zealander of European descent) adapting this film? What efforts did writer/director Niki Caro take to make the film as authentic as possible?

-How would you rate WHALE RIDER?

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