Wednesday, April 14, 2004

"I'm here to harness the flow of the film's success, which is now so much a part of New Zealand's profile in getting the word out about our country," says "Whale Rider" star Rawiri Paratene.

‘Whale Rider’ carries
actor to new roles

Rawiri Paratene

"Whale Rider" star discusses cultural themes featured in the film and New Zealand as a cultural destination

Time: 5-7 p.m. today; "Whale Rider" will be shown following the discussion
Place: Polynesian Cultural Center, Laie
Tickets: $8; $6 for ages 3 to 11; free with Polynesian Cultural Center annual pass
Call: 293-3333

The last time Maori actor Rawiri Paratene visited Hawaii, he was promoting a little-known film with an even lesser-known actress.

The event was last year's Maui Film Festival, the film was "Whale Rider," and the actress was Keisha Castle-Hughes, who ended up nominated for the Academy Awards best actress Oscar. In "Whale Rider," Paratene played Castle-Hughes grandfather.

Now Paratene is back to promote New Zealand tourism and the Maori culture.

" 'Whale Rider' has been a boom for Maori filmmakers," Paratene said. "It's a validation that our stories can reach the world and affect people."

"Whale Rider" is the biggest-grossing New Zealand film ever, which also blazed a trail across North America, taking in more than $20 million at the United States box office.

"The word Maori is known in more places in the U.S. now than ever before," Paratene said.

Another offshoot of the newfound Maori renown is the creation of a Maori language channel in New Zealand, for which Paratene is writing drama segments and acting.

"I'm here to harness the flow of the film's success, which is now so much a part of New Zealand's profile in getting the word out about our country," he said.

The message Paratene will deliver tonight at the Polynesian Cultural Center is to raise traveler awareness of New Zealand's indigenous people, cultural sites, breathtaking landscape and outdoor activities.

Like Hawaiians, the Maori people grew up with stories of Maui, the demigod, Paratene said. "When I walk around the streets of Honolulu or Maui, I see people who look like my relatives. We're connected.

"There's incredible similarity from the way we talk to the way we walk. Hawaii is like a second home to me, like New Zealand would be for Hawaiians."

In the 2001 census, 526,281 people in New Zealand said they were Maori, or 1 in 7. The Auckland region on North Island has the largest population of Polynesians in the world.

"Walk down the street and you'll hear Cook Island, Maori, Samoan, Tongan, Fijian, French Polynesian ...," he said.

Paratene, who was born in Hokianga, has appeared in dozens of films in his 30-year career, including "Rapa Nui" with Hawaii's Jason Scott Lee. But his career has been reenergized by "Whale Rider."

"It's been huge for me," he said. "Since we shot this film, I've done three other movies."

In "Fracture," Paratene has a cameo role as a high court judge; in "The Legend of Johnny Lingo," filmed in the Cook Islands, he's a chief; and in director Pete Horn's "Man-Thing," Paratene plays a Native-American shaman.

"Man-Thing" is from Marvel Comics, known for "Spider-Man," "X-Men," "Hulk," "Blade," and "Daredevil."

Paratene was offered the job without auditioning after American director Brett Leonard saw "Whale Rider."

"I've worked all my life and have done so many interesting things, but the publicity from 'Whale Rider' is allowing me to go to that next level, especially in the growth of the Maori film industry," Paratene said.

He spent most of last year promoting "Whale Rider" and meeting with agents in L.A. and London.

"This was my big break," he said. "I have two jobs in Britain this year."

As to why "Whale Rider" did so well in the United States, he has a definite answer: "Keisha, Keisha, Keisha, and the marketing" by U.S. distributor Newmarket Films, which also handled Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ."

"A young girl performer who can make you cry. Americans also related to the spiritual thing, those things that were universal."

Castle-Hughes, Paratene says, is "New Zealand's best marketing tool."

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