Kiwi director Niki Caro may not be that well known to Australian audiences but, like Christine Jeff who directed last year’s marvellous Rain, she is one of a growing band of young talented female film-makers starting to emerge from New Zealand onto an international stage. Caro started her career in 1994 with Sure To Rise, a short which screened to critical acclaim at Cannes. She made her feature debut in 1997 with Memory And Desire, which won Best Director at the NZ Film and Television Awards.

Whale Rider tells a tale of the worlds of tapu and contemporary Maori society which collide head-on and of the young girl who struggles to bridge the gap between them and at the same time save her people. Witi Ihimaera is a member of the Ngati Konohi people from the tiny settlement of Whangara on the east coast of the north island of New Zealand. He wrote the novel which tells the ancient legend of Paikea, his forebear who came to New Zealand on the back of a whale. Ihimaea was inspired to write the story after seeing a whale stuck in the Hudson River in New York where he was stationed as a diplomat. Whale Rider was written in 1985 and went on to become a staple on school reading lists across New Zealand.

This is a mythical story told in a very straightforward way and it triumphed at the NZ box-office like no other local production of its size in recent times. Even though it is fairly predictable, Caro has created a film with such strong themes and powerful performances that it is compulsive viewing. It is full of cultural richness and beautiful imagery but also the darkness in which many Maoris live. It is no wonder the film has won audience awards from Sundance to Toronto because few NZ films since Once Were Warriors have touched hearts the way Whale Rider does. The cast is outstanding, notably newcomer 11-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes, an urban girl chosen from 10,000 kids who had never acted before. Vicky Haughton is brilliant as Flowers, grandmother and matriarch, the very epitome of Maori female strength.

Whale Rider will tug at the hearts of even the unsentimental in a way few other films do these days and it is for this reason alone you should put this small jewel of a film on your must-see list.

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