The Dark Horse (2014), the New Zealand feature film (not to be confused with the popular 2015 racehorse documentary Dark Horse) is a story about a Maori man who became famous for his ability at speed-chess. This in spite of, or maybe partly because of, his bipolar condition. But greater than his chess skills, he was known for his initiative to inspire young people who were growing up to a troubled future in his community to reach, through the discipline of chess training, beyond their limited expectations.
Just released on DVD in Canada in July 2016, The Dark Horse, which opened in New Zealand in 2014, has already been winning awards and much acclaim. I’ve impatiently awaited its availability here as it looked like a terrific vehicle to engage my community in discussion about the many facets of this bipolar condition. It was a long wait but I was not disappointed.
The film opens with our protagonist staggering around in a rainstorm, disoriented and talking to himself, interrupting traffic in his home town. We soon learn he is on the lam from his psych hospital. It’s obviously not his first episode.
When, after another spell in hospital, he connects through a cousin with a bunch of disadvantaged kids at that cousin’s drop-in centre, he conceives a scheme to teach them to love playing chess.
I love stories based on real events and this one is solid. You can see the real Genesis “Gen” Potini at here. Genesis died in 2011 but was well known in New Zealand and in chess circles during his life — and especially during his last decade for his work with kids. He was the subject of an award winning documentary during his life, but now through a feature film, like David Helfgott (Shine 1996), and John Nash (A Beautiful Mind 2001), a much greater audience will learn his story.
This film might be written off as a “typical, inspiring biopic”. What makes it of great interest to folk like me, who live with bipolar, is that it carries some big messages:
• Find your bliss. Gen found that chess grounded him. It was the fascination and love of his life. When he set his sights on an inspired scheme to apply that talent, he had something to focus on, to stay well for. This was a big goal that gave him a bigger reason than “just getting by”. Quite often we have gifts but need a way to apply that gift beyond ourselves. It can help to find our “fit” in the world we may feel we’ve fallen out of. It will take perseverance to get beyond the original inspiration but sharing that gift can be hugely motivating and satisfying.
• Genesis’ buddy who runs the drop-in is concerned about his past record of episodes, and what it would mean to the kids if Gen goes off the rails again. Several times he stresses the word “stability”. He understands that stability is what his charges need most and warns Gen several times of its importance for the program and for his volatile cousin’s own welfare. It is a goal some of us may need to keep foremost as the winds of life buffet us.
• Life is never straightforward. It’s not just this bipolar condition we live with, it’s a whole scenario; interests, abilities, years of living our experience, sometimes developing unhelpful coping methods, family attitudes, and sometimes dysfunctions that complicate what is often thought to be an isolated condition. In Genesis’s case he is aboriginal and poor; he has, by the time we meet him, a long history of hospitalizations. The brother whom he depends on as his only chance for shelter is mixed up with a biker-like gang, where hard drinking, drugs, dominance games, and a constant threat of violence are the norm — not a good atmosphere. Our protagonist has some hard choices to make — when to step away to avoid conflict and when to face it down.
• In the 2003 documentary Dark Horse Genesis says, “I live in a state of being Maori, being human, and I also live in a state of being a chess player, but I do not live in a state of being a bipolar victim. I have moments where I am manic or depressive but I do not live in a state of being mad.”
However, don’t be afraid this film will just be “good for you”. It is a completely engrossing, deeply affecting story, with very strong performances by all — especially from Cliff Curtis, who is Maori himself, in the lead.
Warning for coarse language. Watch the trailer here.