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Women of the Year 2003

Niki Caro
by Stacie Stukin

The writer/director of the acclaimed New Zealand film “Whale Rider,” Niki Caro, was heartened when a friend returned from an Auckland public pool with a “Whale Rider” report. As children frolicked in the pool, they were acting out the film’s story of a young Maori girl named Pai who rises above sexism to become the leader of her tribe. During the spirited game, all the children screamed, “I want to be Pai,” even the boys.

“It’s amazing to me that I’ve given boys a girl hero to look up to on the screen,” Caro says. The 37-year-old Auckland native has just had her first child—a girl—and she’s both relishing her success and humbled by the experience. It wasn’t a simple task for this pakeha, a non-indigenous New Zealander, to immerse herself as Caro did in the Maori community and tell a story based on tribal legend.

Basing the film on a novel by Maori writer Witi Ihimaera, Caro wrote her own adaptation, learned the Maori language and enlisted members of the Ngati Konohi tribe as consultants to ensure her story was both factually and culturally accurate. Even with the Ngati Konohi chief’s blessing on the project, the Maori press wrote a damning editorial insisting the movie was best made by a Maori. “It was horrible and destabilizing,” Caro recalls. “I was working so hard, and I knew I could do a good job.”

Caro had found herself in a similar position to that of her lead character Pai, who wants to gain acceptance from the grandfather she loves. He condemns her efforts to learn about her culture because she is female. Pai wants acknowledgement that, even though she is a girl, she has what it takes to lead her people. Says Caro, “I felt exactly like Pai as I struggled to gain acceptance from the people I wanted it from the most.”

In the end the Ngati Konohi chief assured her that she had the full support of his community. She needed to persevere and handle the situation like a “chief,” he said.

The New Zealand film industry has produced stellar female directors such as Alison Maclean and Jane Campion, so Caro says, “I feel like I’ve never really had to fight to be a feminist or a filmmaker.” She proudly notes that New Zealand was the first country to grant women the vote and that its three most powerful government leaders—the prime minister, the chief justice and the governor-general—are all women.

Caro says she set out to make a film about leadership. “Stories about girls Pai’s age tend to be about sexual awakening. I wanted to tell the story of how Pai awakens to her own strength and power,” she explains. “I was more interested in raising the question of what makes a great leader and how these leadership qualities show up in the heart, mind and spirit of a young girl.”

A cursory viewing of “Whale Rider” reveals a sexist Maori culture in which knowledge and lineage are passed down only along the male line. But in Caro’s eyes, the Maori are also profoundly matriarchal. She brings up a Maori saying that translates “Women lead from behind.”

During Maori community gatherings women sit in the back and don’t speak, and Caro abided by these traditions. But she also points out, “Elderly women are considered treasures within the culture. It’s extraordinarily clear that women are the ones who make sure things go according to plan and that they are immensely powerful.”

The birth of her child has only increased Caro’s respect for the role of mothers. She’s incredibly proud that her child will probably now see her film in school (the book is already part of New Zealand’s school curriculum) and that it continues to play in her country. “I feel I’m playing an incredibly valuable role in society,” she says. “Now, I think, more than ever, it’s time for the next stage of feminists to acknowledge the absolute power we have as mothers and women.”

13-year-old actress Keisha Castle-Hughes was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Click here for more...

Click here for more on the award winning film Whale Rider.

Photo by Jeff Vespa/



Copyright Ms. Magazine 2009