The Dark Horse
by Sherif Awad
The Dark Horse, a new drama from New Zealand, was announced as the winner of Audience Award of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR). Directed by James Napier Robertson, it is an inspiring true story based on the life of a charismatic, little-known New Zealand hero, Genesis “Gen” Potini, played by Cliff Curtis (Once Were Warriors, Whale Rider, Boy) who once was a heralded chess champion. Genesis has spent the last few years in and out of mental institutions, battling with severe bipolar disorder and after being released from the psychiatric ward for one more chance at life, he moved in with Ariki, his gang-patched and distant brother. Needing a purpose and a reason to get out of the gang house, Gen joins a rough-as-guts local chess club, with the wild idea of coaching the motley crew of kids to the national chess championship. On the way, Gen must face the responsibility that comes with being a leader, navigate conflict within the gang world and try to survive the potentially devastating strife that breaks out between him and his brother over his nephew’s future. The real-life Geb died in 2011 after teaching local youth how to play chess with hopes to dissuade them from getting involved in gangs and crime. However, his struggle with bipolar disorder required frequent hospital stays. To prepare for the role, Curtis put on considerable weight and studied chess with some of Potini's erstwhile friends. Gen had been the subject of a well received 2003 documentary film also called Dark Horse.
The Dark Horse opened the 2014 New Zealand International Film Festival in Auckland and Wellington then had its international premiere at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September 2014.
Cliff Curtis, who rose to international attention in 2002’s Whale Rider (he has played all manner of Hollywood ethnics ever since), has been a huge driving force behind a lot of the success, by cleverly developing a close alliance with the Sundance Institute in getting his film made. In 2004, Curtis, together with producer Ainsley Gardiner, founded the production company Whenua Films to produce Maori-oriented movies, including Eagle vs. Shark and Boy. An eccentric and occasional behaving in weird manners, Curtis once made national headlines for driving his four-wheel drive into a house in spectacular fashion, supposedly when he was checking a text. Most recently, he turned up at The Dark Horse TIFF premiere dressed entirely in white and would only talk via his iPad.
He is also an actor who likes to immerse himself in his role. In The Dark Horse, Curtis had likewise done the same, gaining 30 kilos and playing chess around the clock to portray the bipolar Gen.
New Zealand has not only hosted the shooting of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and its prequel trilogy The Hobbit, but also major international productions not only filming there but also using the various post-production facilities and special effects companies on offer. The Last Samurai and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe were among these prominent films.
For lovers of both movies and chess, I recommend them to see The Dark Horse that should be releases in 2015 across the US in addition to some screen classic involving chess like: Dangerous Moves (1984) about two very different men competing in the final match of the World Chess Championship; one is a 52-year-old Soviet Jew who holds the title, and the other is a 35-year-old genius who defected to the West several years earlier, Knight Moves (1992) that starred Christophe Lambert as a chess champion accused of a murder, Searching for Bobby Fisher (1993) based on the life of prodigy chess player Joshua Waitzkin and adapted from the book of the same name by his. and of course The Seventh Seal (1957): it telling the journey of a medieval knight and a game of chess he plays with the personification of Death who has come to take his life.