Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 7, 2015

Dark Horse; Whale Rider

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 3:36 pm

At a breakfast hosted by film publicists this morning I had the extraordinary good fortune to meet Cliff Curtis, the Maori actor who plays Genesis Potini in “Dark Horse”, a film that opens on Dec. 11th in NYC. I will be posting a reminder about “Dark Horse” when it is about to open. It is my pick for best narrative film of 2015.

I reviewed the film in conjunction with two other films about chess for CounterPunch a couple of weeks ago.

In real life Potini trained Maori children to compete in chess tournaments. Despite suffering from bipolar disorder, he made a major contribution to Maori society.

Curtis is not the typical actor. He had a tremendous grasp of the importance of the film as both art and message. He has been in many films over the years, including some that address Maori identity such as “Once Were Warriors” and “Whale Rider” that I reviewed 11 years ago, before I began blogging. He is visible in the image accompanying part one of the film immediately below:

My review:

Whale Rider

posted to www.marxmail.org on March 2, 2004

Considering all the hype surrounding “Lord of the Rings”, one might have missed another New Zealand export that is now available in DVD/Video and whose 13 year old star was nominated as Best Actress in 2004. I am speaking of “Whale Rider”, a Maori coming of age story with a twist–in this case the protagonist is a teenage girl rather than a boy.

Although Keisha Castle-Hughes is an Australian Aboriginal, she clearly has an exceptional ability to make her character Pai come to life. When Pai is born, her twin brother and mother die at the same time. Her grief-stricken father Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) leaves New Zealand to pursue a career as an artist, leaving her in the care of her grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene), a chief of the Ngati Kanoahi people.

He is entrusted with teaching Maori traditions that go back for millennia to the 12 year old boys in the village. This consists of lessons in how to chant, dance, wield a club and make fearsome warrior faces. Like any other 12 year olds, their attention span is limited. In many ways, their training reminded me of what it was like to go to Hebrew School in preparation for my Bar Mitzvah.

As it turns out, Pai is much more avid to learn Maori skills than any of the boys. In some ways, she is overly zealous. When she encounters Maori women smoking during a card game, she warns them that smoking will weaken their Maori child-bearing properties. Like Lisa Simpson, her conscientiousness goes against the grain of a village as laid-back as Homer and Bart.

Although she and her grandfather seem to be on the same wave-length temperamentally, he is dead-set opposed to her learning Maori skills. Over and over he reprimands her for eavesdropping on training sessions for the village boys in hopes of achieving a station that her gender does not permit. Despite obvious differences with western industrial societies, it is reminiscent of the kind of sexism a young girl who aspires to be a football player might encounter.

Fortunately, Pai has her grandmother Nanny’s (Vicky Haughton) support, who views her husband as hopelessly backward. She refers to him contemptuously as “old Paka” and intercedes on Pai’s behalf throughout this marvelous story.

The title of the film is derived from the climactic scene in which the villagers struggle in vain to get a group of beached whales to return to the ocean. Since the animals are their totem, this is a matter of life-and-death. Suffice it to say that Pai becomes chief of her people through her heroic intervention.

This Sunday’s NY Times Magazine had an article on “dying languages” that takes a light-hearted attitude toward the efforts of such people to preserve their cultural identity. From a paper on the Northern ArizonaUniversity website titled “Four Successful Indigenous Language Programs”, we discover:

The Maori people of New Zealand comprise 15 percent of the New Zealand population of approximately four million people. At first contact with Europeans, 75 percent of the native population died of disease. The history of the Maori reads like the history of the Native American tribes; land taken without treaties, slaughter, and subhuman treatment (Holmes, 1992). The Maori have a common language regardless of where in New Zealand they reside. The tribes trace their ancestry to Polynesian migrants about 800 AD or earlier and followed by other waves of migration, the last major influx at about 1300 AD. Tribes based on family ancestry were further divided into subgroups that lived in villages. They hunted, gathered, and practiced subsistence agriculture. The public meeting house was the center of village life.

“Whale Rider” is a very convincing account of the Maori people to resist assimilation. The public meeting house of Pai’s village is where most of the dramatic scenes take place. This is a film for anybody with a young daughter who might be encountering confining sexual roles in school or in the neighborhood. It is also for anybody who wants to see fine performances in an uplifting film. Strongly recommended.




  1. You have a habit of reviewing films that can only be seen in NYC, LA, and maybe SF and Denver on a good day. For those of us that live in the less “cosmopolitan” areas of the country these films never come near us. There happen to be some films slightly more mainstream that sneak into the backwaters occasionally like Jimmy’s Hall worth a review and to me so far the best movie of the year.

    Comment by Michael Tormey — October 7, 2015 @ 5:42 pm

  2. Michael, most of these films eventually make their way into Amazon streaming, Hulu and Netflix (although much less so of late). I also recommend “Alternatives to Netflix” such as those I wrote up on CounterPunch a while back:



    Comment by louisproyect — October 7, 2015 @ 5:55 pm

  3. Was it pointed out on the mailing list that Castle-Hughes, though born in Australia, is not actually an Aboriginal Australian?

    Comment by Finn — October 7, 2015 @ 7:41 pm

  4. Whale Rider never came to the theater where I live (Hilo) but I saw it years ago on video. Oceanic film is overlooked not just in the mainstream but in most of the alternative media, so I appreciate your highlighting Pacific (including Hawaiian) film and music.

    Comment by Poppa Zao — October 8, 2015 @ 6:49 am

  5. Saw “Whale Rider” in the theatre when it was released in 2004 with my future wife. A wonderful film that speaks to the heart and the mind.

    Comment by Richard Estes — October 9, 2015 @ 2:23 am

  6. Keisha Castle-Hughes is of Maori and Anglo-Australian descent, not Aboriginal. Her mother is NZ-born Maori, her father Anglo-Australian, and she was born in Australia. After her parents split up her mother brought her to NZ, where she grew up.

    ‘Whale Rider’ was a great film. I just can’t get into Peter Jackson blockbusters – they’re all grand scale and clever effects and big stars, but where’s the story? Jackson’s best film was ‘Heavenly Creatures’. After that he lost touch with humanity and became a blockbuster director in Hollywood style (not praise!) and a pampered brat who screwed over his employees and managed to get industrial law here changed to cut costs and make even huger amounts of money for his films. He’s like a spoilt middle class child who needs to be told a firm ‘No’ once in a while.

    Comment by Phil F — October 12, 2015 @ 2:28 am

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