Whale Rider screening with VPS’s Lauren Swintek makes waves

Emerson Little


On Thursday, Nov. 15, members of the Whittier College community gathered together in Hoover 100 to watch Whale Rider, a contemporary retelling of an ancient Maori legend in which a young girl must go against all odds — and traditions — to prove to her grandfather that she is a natural leader. The 2003 film was chosen by Video Production Studios (VPS) member Lauren Swintek, a third-year with a Whittier Scholars Program (WSP) major in Film Studies, as part of the club’s film screening series.

Based on a 1985 book by Witi Ihimaera, Whale Rider begins in a small New Zealand coastal community. In both the book and film adaptation, Maori claim descent from Paikea, the Whale Rider. In every generation, for more than one thousand years, a male heir born to the Chief will succeed the title. Chief Koro’s eldest son, Porourangi, fathers twins — a boy and a girl — but the boy and his mother die in childbirth. The surviving girl is called Pai. Grief-stricken, Porourangi leaves Pai to be raised by her grandparents. Chief Koro refuses to acknowledge Pai as the inheritor of the tradition and claims she is of no use to him. But her grandmother, Flowers, sees more than a broken line; she sees a child in desperate need of love. Koro learns to love Pai, and when Porourangi, a now celebrated international artist, returns home after twelve years, Koro hopes everything will be resolved — that Porourangi will become his successor — but Porourangi declines. 

The old chief is convinced that the tribe’s misfortunes began at Pai’s birth and calls for his people to bring their twelve-year-old boys to him for training. He is certain that through a grueling training process of teaching the ancient chants, tribal lore, and warrior techniques, the future leader of their tribe will be revealed to him. 

Meanwhile, deep within the ocean, a massive school of whales is responding to Pai’s calls for help. When the whales become stranded on the beach, Koro is sure this signals an apocalyptic end to his tribe — until Pai prepares to make the ultimate sacrifice to save the people, becoming the Whale Rider in the process.

Lauren Swintek saw Whale Rider when she was young and did not see it again for a very long time, but the image of the Whale Rider always stayed with her. “I rediscovered it in high school and have loved it ever since,” said Swintek. “It’s just such a nuanced portrait of what indigenous cultures face in the world today and has a wonderfully articulated message about feminism. I think that it doesn’t really get as much recognition as it should.” 

Swintek was such a fan of the film that she created posters to promote its screening. Her posters depict Pai riding with the whales against a beautiful blue ocean background. “After sketching out the whales, I painted them with acrylic and scanned them into Photoshop, where I added Pai, the background, and the whales,” said Swintek. “I think, if I had more time with them, they would be better, especially since I forgot to put the time on the poster.” 

According to fourth-year and Senior Executive Producer of VPS Kelly Santos, VPS started the screenings for this academic year back in October. The first film shown was Ghost World, which was chosen by VPS member Daniel Bautista. “In general, VPS has had film screenings on and off since 2015,” said Santos. “They would collaborate with a lot of other clubs on campus in hosting these screenings in our old office. Normally, around six or so people show up for these events; usually just VPS members. We choose a random VPS member, then from there, they choose what film gets to be screened.” VPS will continue to have screenings next semester.  

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Swintek definitely plans on making posters for future VPS events and films around campus. She said, “I think the poster format is a really fun place to experiment with typography and design.” In fact, Swintek joined VPS because she wanted to get more involved in filmmaking and learn more about production. With her WSP major in Film Studies, Swintek would like to pursue a career in the industry, writing for film and television, preferably in animation. “I’ve always been interested in storytelling, mostly books, but then I started applying the same ideals of literary analysis to film, and was enchanted. Movies are such an exciting medium for storytelling, and I can’t help but want to be a part of that,” she said.