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Whale Rider - An interview with Rawiri Paratene



Interview by: Graeme Kay

MAORI actor, Rawiri Paratene, who plays Koro in Whale Rider, is well known in New Zealand for his work in TV and theatre.

The rest of the world probably knows him best for his role in What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?, the sequel to Once Were Warriors. Graeme Kay caught up with him London.

Q. What did you think to Koro as a character?
A.
I always say that he is one of the most honest characters I've ever encountered. He is absolutely true to his tikanga - to his understanding of Maori culture and customs.
But with that integrity comes a stubbornness and a pride and that's what trips him up.
He simply cannot comprehend that his granddaughter could be the next chief, because that is something that has never happened before.

Q. Were you aware of the legend of Paikea as a child?
A.
I was brought up in a village not far from Whangara, where Whale Rider was shot, so, of course, I am aware of the legend of Paikea, all Maoris are.
But there are many legends in Maori culture, for example, in my village it is believed that the women arrived there on the back of a giant bird.

Q. Did that make for a very matriarchal society?
A.
Not originally. But these days the women are a very powerful and vibrant force in Maori politics. They've really led the way in achieving some of the political and social reforms that the Maori people have been pushing for over the last few decades.
The old men, who used to be in charge, don't particularly like that, but they've just had to realise that they have failed themselves and take a back seat. The women have become very strong in some places.

Q. So is Maori culture enjoying a resurgence?
A.
Yes, yes, very definitely. There was a time, in the 70s and 80s, when the young people were moving away from the villages in favour of the big towns.
But they found it hard to get work there and eventually decided that they might as well be unemployed in their own communities as somewhere where they might be regarded with hostility.
Although the Maori make up 15% of the NZ population there are still a lot of red-necks who think that our voice should be ignored.
They hate the fact that we've received grants for education and agriculture and other training schemes, so we have to deal with that.
There are still social problems within the Maori community, but things are definitely improving. We are lucky that in Helen Clark we have a great Prime Minister, she has taken on the red-necks and helped the Maori in very significant ways.

Q. How was it working with non-actors in this film?
A.
It was great, absolutely great. All the people who appear as extras in the film were actually from Whangara, so, of course, they were totally committed to the project, because it was their own story they were telling.
I have made one or two good friends within that group of people and I have been back to visit them several times since the filming ended.
They were fantastic to work with. They were there every day, come rain or shine, they never let anyone down and they were also very good actors.

Q. The sequence with the whales was very impressive. Were any of them actually real?
A.
No, they were all models. The thing that made them seem real wasn't so much the way they looked, although they were fantastic, as the way the people reacted to them.
Obviously, the whale has great mythical power for the Maori people, so as far as we were all concerned the spirit that the models represented was enough to bring them alive.
If you look at the faces of the extras as we stage that scene where we're trying to save the stranded pod you can see that for them they were playing out history. There was real passion and love there.

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