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Stateside with Rosalea: Whale watcher watching


Stateside with Rosalea

Whale watcher watching

By Rosalea Barker

Saturday 21 June was First Nations Day up the road in Canada, so it seemed like the right time to go and see Whale Rider, which had opened at local theatres the previous day, in time for the school holidays. The theatre chain it's being shown in - Landmark - has a reputation for showing the best films from festivals around the world, as well as the best independent and quirky mainstream films.

For example, the trailers shown with Whale Rider were for Northfork, The Legend of Suriyothai, The Sea is Watching, and Capturing the Friedmans at one local theatre, and Camp, Northfork, The Legend of Suriyothai, and Mondays in the Sun at another. Yes, I saw Whale Rider twice in one day.

The first time was at noon in the California Theatre, where it shares the billing with A Mighty Wind and Bruce Almighty. The California dates from the golden age of movie theatres but has had two small theatres built into "upstairs", leaving the "downstairs" as the main theatre, still with its extraordinary gold-painted leaf-and-sheath decorations around the full-size screen.

The Whale Rider experience begins out in the California's foyer, where they've created an underwater feel with dangling blue crepe paper and ornamental metallic paper fish up above your head. There are plenty of PureNZ posters around and exhortations to enter the associated competition to win a trip to New Zealand (flying Qantas, the Spirit of Australia).

The music playing before the trailers start is of whales underwater, and I have to say I highly recommend sitting in a big old dimly lit theatre with those sounds playing. It's exceedingly soothing. Then the trailer advertising the film and the competition bursts onto the screen. Perhaps it's the same trailer that's been playing on TV and in theatres for a while now, judging by the number of people who had been telling me (completely unprompted) that they couldn't wait for the film to open.

The second theatre I saw Whale Rider at was the Piedmont, another old-time movie house with the downstairs preserved as the main theatre and two smaller theatres upstairs. I was there because I was going to see Bend It Like Beckham, and I'd seen that someone was going to do a presentation about Maori culture in the downstairs foyer before the seven o'clock showing of Whale Rider so I wanted to check that out.

There was quite a queue outside the ticket office and while I was standing in it someone asked if I wanted to buy a ticket to Whale Rider. She'd bought, she thought, one with her credit card but the ticket-seller had sold her two and couldn't change the transaction. What the hell, I thought, I'll see it again!

Turns out it was the only way I could have gotten to see the cultural presentation because the person came into the theatre and spoke to the audience as the credits were rolling. The questions from the audience were interesting - one person asked if Maori were discriminated against the way the Aborigines were in Australia; another asked the significance of the final scene with Pai in the canoe and whether women are allowed to row; someone else picked up on the line about eating people.

Later this week I'll be going to see Whale Rider for a third time, this time in the company of a friend and her two daughters. I'm curious to see their reaction, as they are about Paikea's age. From what I've seen so far, Whale Rider is popular with all ages because it succeeds in the same way silent films succeeded as an international medium.

Most of the reactions I heard as the film was playing were in response to things unspoken but plainly evoked by a look, a gesture - the universal language of humanity. One of the biggest reactions was when the grandfather poked his tongue out. The audience roared with laughter, and I wondered if it had gotten the same reaction in cinemas in Aotearoa New Zealand, where that gesture carries a heavy burden of cultural significance.

For me, the best thing about Whale Rider is the many times in which you see a character undergo a shift in their understanding or a surge of emotion they can't control and there are no words and the camera doesn't linger on that expression one second more than it has to. The audience understood what was being conveyed every time.

Now, that's good cinema!

To see how Whale Rider is rating with the critcs and audiences in the US you could check out http://www.metacritic.com/film/titles/whalerider/ At the moment it has a rating of 82 out of 100, putting it in the category of "universal acclaim".

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