Coming Up for Air

posted by Pilar Gerasimo 09/01/2003 0 comments

The other problem with this summer: I didn’t get to see many movies. One day back in mid-July, while looking for a reprieve from the heat and a too-crammed schedule, I did see Whale Rider. Despite being a little mushy and formulaic in spots, it turned out to be one of my favorite films of the year, in part because it dovetailed with some themes I was developing for this issue of the magazine. (I know, this is the “Growing Up Fit” issue, not the “Whale” issue, but bear with me.)

The plot of this independent New Zealand film concerns a little girl, Pai, who is destined – against all expectation and tradition – to become the next chief and spiritual leader of her modern-day Maori coastal community. The problem is, the community’s chiefs have always been men. In fact, the lineage of first-born sons traces back directly to Paikea, the whale-riding progenitor credited with leading the very first Maori people to New Zealand. Despite Pai’s having the appropriate, first-born genealogical lineage and many other qualities that make her promising chief material, on the basis of her gender, Pai’s grandfather, Koro (the current chief), stubbornly refuses to consider her.

Ironically, as Pai grows and begins showing all the marks of a gifted natural leader, Koro grows increasingly rejecting of her and tries even more desperately to identify a local boy whom he can train to lead the next generation. In the process, he misses the answer that’s in front of him.

Meanwhile, evidence of the Maori community’s gradual demise mounts: Their traditional way of life and spiritual foundations are being eroded by the dominant culture’s societal and economic forces; their physical health and connections with the natural world are being undermined; their sense of purpose seems all but lost. In short, these people need a miracle. And by the end of the film, it comes, but in an unexpected way – a way that initially washes up looking like a huge problem.

There’s a lot going on in this film. There are stories of personal formation, stories of spiritual crisis and stories of cultural drift – all of which are underscored by themes related to the necessary tension between tradition and change. But there are also a surprising number of subplots and subtler messages about physical health.

Several of the characters in the film, including a number of the children, are overweight and out of shape. At various points, we get messages about the damage wrought by a Western diet, lack of physical exercise and a waning connection to the natural world. We also get insights about how the culture’s social and physical ills are creating a vicious cycle – a cycle in which one form of disconnection, oppression and disempowerment leads almost inevitably to another.

The underlying truth in all of this, it seems to me, is that the physical health of the people living in a culture mirrors, to a large extent, the health of that culture as a whole. A culture that loses its ritual and spiritual grounding, that suffers a disconnection from nature, and that fails to imbue its people with a sense of meaning will begin to demonstrate the physical manifestations of these deficits. In other words, when we aren’t getting enough of one thing, we typically compensate with too much of another. But obviously, no amount of food, drugs, distractions or stuff can ever make up for those bigger and more important things lost.

We are now witnessing a generation of children who are showing us with their bodies that something is amiss with our culture. The way we are living, they are saying, isn’t working out so well. Improving our family’s eating and exercise is certainly a good start, and necessary, but so is pausing to consider the deeper causes and solutions to this problem.

Walking out of Whale Rider, I kept thinking to myself: What if, instead of frantically looking for cures to the troubling manifestations of childhood obesity, we began seeing this problem as the catalyst for a much larger-scale review of the way we are living – and not living?

We took on this issue of Experience Life with that spirit of inquiry in mind. We’re eager to hear about the insights it brings to the surface for you.

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