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Understanding Whangara: Whale Rider as Simulacrum Open Access


Author or creator
Hokowhitu, Brendan
Additional contributors
Niki Caro
Maori film
Te Tumu
Witi Ihimaera
University of Otago;
Whale Rider
Brendan Hokowhitu
Type of item
Journal Article (Published)
For those with neither pen nor sword, the movie camera has proven a mighty instrument. For centuries, colonized aboriginal people depended upon oral tradition to preserve their language and creation stories - the pith and marrow of every culture - but with the advent of the 20th century and documentary films like Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North and Moana, a new medium emerged to champion their cause. Now filmmakers are turning from the documentary depiction of these indigenous cultures to their languages and creation myths, furthering a cinematic tradition and exploring an entirely new genre (Garcia 2003a: 16) Ulrich Koch's 1998 film The Saltmen of Tibet, which ethnographically chronicled the spiritual journey re-enacted each year by Tibetan nomads 'marked a turning point' (Garcia 2003a: 16) in film production because of its anthropological intent. That is, the film attempted to explain in a text understandable to a western audience, the complexities, mores and customs of an-'other' culture. Many films with similar ethnographic underpinnings followed, such as Zacharias Kunuk's (2001) Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner), Phillip Noyce's (2002) Rabbit Proof Fence and Niki Caro's (2003) Whale Rider, to the extent that these films and others of the same ilk have clustered to form an increasingly popular genre. The growing attention and curiosity of the global film audience with the indigenous subject is, thus, a phenomenon worthy of investigation. Often indigenous films are referred to as sites of resistance, where indigenous groups are able to maintain their autonomy in the age of globalisation. To some degree, this reasoning explains why many Māori champion films such as Whale Rider and Once Were Warriors, for at least they give recognition to their social existence and consciousness against a modernity and colonial era that has denied them a historical and political presence.
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© 2007 Brendan Hokowhitu. This is an Open Access document distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly credited.
Citation for previous publication
Hokowhitu, B. 2007. ‘Understanding Whangara: Whale Rider as Simulacrum’. MEDIANZ: Media Studies Journal of Aotearoa New Zealand, 10 (2). 22-30.
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