Zoom Salon - Whale Rider (2002) – 102 minutes | Mechanics' Institute

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Zoom Salon - Whale Rider (2002) – 102 minutes
May 2021 CinemaLit: Visions of the Sacred on Film

Friday, May 14, 2021 - 6:00pm

CinemaLit Film Series

May 2021 – Visions of the Sacred on Film

Inspired by a suggestion from a CinemaLit patron, we're dedicating May to films exploring religion and faith. We've strived for a sweeping representation of small and large scale, Eastern and Western, ancient to contemporary. The films - The Seventh Seal (1957), Whale Rider (2002), Leona (2019), and Legend of the Mountain (1979) - also vary in how religion and faith are presented in their stories. They act as social contract, family unifier, map of the afterlife, conduit for magic and power, intergenerational conflicts, political tool for social control, vehicle for cultural preservation, and repository of myths and legends.

Spanning more than sixty years of filmmaking, they come from all over the globe. They're set and filmed in Sweden (The Seventh Seal), New Zealand (Whale Rider), and Mexico (Leona), with one made through funding and production ties to China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and South Korea (Legend of the Mountain). Each ask elemental questions of their protagonists, and in turn are asked of each of us. Who are we, and what is our place in our community and the larger world?

May 14 – Whale Rider (2002) – 102 minutes

Whangara is a small town on the east coast of New Zealand's North Island. The origin myth of the indigenous Maori has the ancient chief Paikea arriving from Hawaiki on the back of a whale. The succession of chiefs has been strict primogeniture ever since – a single line of firstborn males passing through generations. Successor Porourangi is not suited for the responsibility, so his father casts all hope on his unborn grandson. When the grandson and mother die in labor, while a twin granddaughter survives, both father Koro and Porourangi go into deep mourning, and the local culture goes into decline.

Flash forward eleven years. The surviving twin, Pai, believes she is destined to be the next chief. Her staunchly traditional grandfather disagrees, and searches for the next leader among the local boys.

Director-screenwriter Niki Caro adapted the source novel Whale River by Maori author Witi Ihimaera to the screen. Caro, a native New Zealander, strove for authenticity, filming at Whangara and staying true to Maori customs. We the audience are treated to a stirring portrayal of a culture rarely seen in the larger world. Whale Rider glows with bright sunlight and a crystal blue sea, but it's the human story that is most gripping. At the center of the tale is Pai, played by Keisha Castle-Hughes in her screen debut. She is stunningly at ease and self-possessed in front of the camera. She imbues Pai with a youthful integrity and emotional honesty that earned her an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress.

In the nearly twenty years following Whale Rider, Caro has continued exploring gender, sexism, and spirituality in such well-received films as North Country and A Heavenly Vintage. In 2020 she directed the big budgeted live action Mulan for Walt Disney Pictures. Castle-Hughes could have disappeared, as do so many child actors who make one big early career splash. Though nothing has approached the acclaim and notoriety of Whale Rider, she has worked steadily in film and television, in the US and New Zealand.


Matthew Kennedy, CinemaLit’s curator, has written biographies of Marie Dressler, Joan Blondell, and Edmund Goulding. His book Roadshow! The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s, was the basis of a film series on Turner Classic Movies. 


I don't have a favorite film,” Matthew says. "I find that my relationships to films, actors, genres, and directors change as I change over the years. Some don't hold up. Some look more profound, as though I've caught up with their artistry. I feel that way about Garbo, Cary Grant, director John Cassavetes, and others."

Classic films have historical context, something only time can provide,” Matt observes. “They become these great cultural artifacts, so revealing of tastes, attitudes, and assumptions.”



First watch the selected film on Kanopy. All you will need is either a Mechanics' Institute library card, or a San Francisco Public Library card, which will give you access to Kanopy and its treasure trove of movies. Make a reservation for our CinemaLit Salon as usual via Eventbrite and watch the film on Kanopy at your leisure. You will receive a link to the Friday night CinemaLit salon on Zoom one day in advance, and then an additional reminder roughly two hours in advance. On the night of the salon click the Zoom link and join us.

If you do not receive a Zoom Link by 4:00 PM on the day of the event, contact Pam Troy at [email protected]


Mechanics’ Institute members can now sign up for FREE access to Kanopy, a wonderful film streaming service. To sign up:

1. Click on  THIS LINK.

2. Click on the large orange login button that reads, “Log in to milibrary.”

3. Enter the 14-digit bar code from your MI Library card

4. Set up your account following Kanopy’s instructions, including your email and a password.

5. Kanopy will send verification to your email address.

You’ll be able to choose from a wonderful selection of films, including classics, pre-code, foreign films, and documentaries, including the films we’ve scheduled this month for CinemaLit.

If you are not a Mechanics’ Institute member, consider membership and click  HERE  to join online:

Or, you can check with your public library to see if they are Kanopy members. If so, you may use your public library card to set up a Kanopy account.


Register with Eventbrite below.

If the green TICKET button is not immediately visible, scroll down on the right in the Eventbrite window until it appears.


CinemaLit Films

Members Free
Public Sliding Scale Free to $10
Register now ›
Pam Troy - 415-393-0116
Register now by using the form below or calling .

Future CinemaLit Films

Apr 23 - 6:00pm

Zoom Salon - Wuthering Heights (1939) – 106 minutes
April 2021 CinemaLit: Wonderful William Wyler

Apr 30 - 6:00pm

Zoom Salon - The Little Foxes (1941) – 117 minutes
April 2021 CinemaLit: Wonderful William Wyler

May 7 - 6:00pm

Zoom Salon - The Seventh Seal (1957) – 98 minutes
May 2021 CinemaLit: Visions of the Sacred on Film

May 21 - 6:00pm

Zoom Salon - Leona (2019) – 95 minutes
May 2021 CinemaLit: Visions of the Sacred on Film

May 28 - 6:00pm

Zoom Salon - Legend of the Mountain (1979) – 193 minutes
May 2021 CinemaLit: Visions of the Sacred on Film

Jun 4 - 6:00pm

Dream State: California in the Movies, with author Mick LaSalle, a Zoom salon
A CinemaLit Author Event, cosponsored by Heyday Books