It is rare to see two (or more films) at a festival and think they are both equally strong but this happened this year when I went to the Salisbury Festival to see two films from New Zealand set in Maori communities. For me, a film has to resonate weeks after seeing it for it to enter my hinterland. ‘The Dark Horse’ along with ‘Boy’ has stayed with me. I saw them together, one after the other, and was blown away by them both even though they have different styles and are from different genres.
In ‘The Dark Horse’, director James Napier Robertson tells the story of how some people in communities reach out to other people in need. In this case it is based on a true story of Genesis Pontini, a brilliant chess player who has bi-polar disorder. As his life crumbles, he finds purpose through teaching chess to others. Specifically, he supports a group of underprivileged young people by teaching them chess and coaching them for a tournament.
What could have been a ‘feel good’ movie was given grit by the context and circumstances. In this Maori community, many of the young people feel the hopelessness of the adults around them and inherit the poverty of aspiration. It is also violent, at times, as the nephew of Genesis finds out. He is called Mana and is played by James Rolleston, who was so affecting in the film ‘Boy’. Older now and in a completely different role, he plays Mana as a frightened youth trying to project a confidence he thinks he needs to survive; obviously he trusts no one.
Genesis brings Mana into the chess group and the boy discovers not just a talent but a person to belong to. This provides the conflict of the film since Mana’s father has intentions to bring him into the gang culture he inhabits. His intentions are not entirely malign since he fears for his son and needs to know he is part of a protective group. Genesis may be a champion chess player but he is also homeless and without a support structure of his own.
James Napier Robertson brings this story to a fitting ending without resorting to the usual sporting cliches of film. You would expect the poor kids to triumph over the rich ones at the tournament and you would expect the sporting metaphor to bring a happy ending. Instead, the director concentrates on how the game of chess provides order in a chaotic world and how strategy allows people to take some control of their lives.
In Cliff Curtis, Robertson has an excellent Genesis and in the film’s most touching moment, James Rolleston and Cliff Curtis give a masterclass in acting.
‘The Dark Horse’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?