Whale Rider

In the Maori culture there is the phenomenon of matemate-a-one. It describes the sickness experienced when parted from tribal land—a grieving for place. It is beyond love. It's a sickness that affects the mind and the soul, a primal response to and a craving for a particular place. For home.

As a pakeha (or European) New Zealander I had no appreciation of this. Whenever I travelled, it was New Zealand itself that represented home, the landscape, the culture, and the decency of its people. But I never felt the ache of matemate-a-one until I wrote and directed a film called Whale Rider.

Now I feel it for a place called Whangara, a tiny Maori village on New Zealand's East Coast. Whangara is the home of a Maori tribe known as Ngati Kanohi, whose earliest ancestor arrived on the back of a whale. This is where the film is set and the people of Whangara are the people you see on the screen. They're whale people. They have lived on that piece of land for a thousand years. Their sense of matemate-a-one is very strong.

Shortly after I began work on the film, a whale stranded on the beach where I was living, forty-five minutes drive from New Zealand's biggest city. The landscape there is extraordinary—the dark sand extending for miles out to the ocean and no clear indication where land and sea meet. Except for a solid black mass that increased in size as I approached.
It was a young sperm whale, seventeen meters long. Nothing in my experience could have prepared me for being that close to a whale and nothing was more powerful in getting me connected to the story of the whale rider and the film that it would become. The privilege of being close to a real whale is impossible to explain.

In New Zealand a whale stranding is usually cause for great trauma and sadness. Attempts to save the whales are often futile. And yet we keep trying. There is, in some critical part of our nature, a connection to these creatures and a desperate need to save them.

There is a scene in the film that depicts this. But the beach is Whangara and the people are Ngati Kanohi, for whom whales are their ancestors. And I'm humbled by the tenderness these people show our (not real) whales. For the people of Ngati Kanohi, the whales are not only real, they're family. They're talked to and held and comforted and when they die they are grieved for. It is one of the most moving sequences in the film.

And it makes me think that maybe whales too, experience the sickness of matemate-a-one. That maybe when they strand, they're just coming home.

©2003 Landmark Theatres