The film ‘Whale Rider’ is set in New Zealand in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s. The film depicts a small Maori fishing village. This village’s economy is clearly underdeveloped, as it appears that fishing is the primary source of employment.
This community is traditional and conservative in its religious beliefs. As a result, it is a close-knit community and there is a great sense of community. The villagers uphold their Maori religion and there is a strict adherence to religious authority. Koro is revered in this village as tribal chief. It appears to be quite insular in that the influence of urbanisation and commercialism have not made a big impact on this small fishing village. The villagers seem to be somewhat resistant to change, especially the elders who respect custom and tradition.
The sense of depravation that characterises this community is adumbrated in the reference to criminality. Hami talks about when his father ‘gets out’ of prison. There seems to be a gang culture emerging, indicative of the lack of opportunities for people.
The film portrays a way of life that is very different to modern technological urbanity. Despite its strict adherence to tradition and custom, we see glimpses of modernity though the medium of pop music on the radio.
This is a patriarchal society. Traditionally, the men assume the leadership roles and positions of authority. It is in this cultural context that the protagonist, Paikea struggles against in order to assert her inalienable right to be the tribal chief.
The role of women in this village is quite traditional. The woman’s role is a domesticated one. The women assume the traditional role of women in caring for the children and the home. Even the feisty, independent Nanna Flowers who is a positive role model for Paikea, is obedient to her husband. She respects his decision to exile Paikea from their home because he thinks that she is unlucky.