M stands for mother. M stands for Māori. M stands for mature audiences. Hmmm.
On Sunday, I took my middle child to see an M-rated film, Dark Horse. The review I read in The Age described Dark Horse as possibly the best thing to come out of New Zealand since Lee Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors (1994). It got four stars.
The film was based on the true story of Genesis Potini, an awesome Ngāti Porou man with bi-polar disorder who taught thousands of East Coast kids to play chess. It starred Cliff Curtis as Genesis – in a performance that was ‘mesmerising’ – and also James Rolletson (from Taika Waititi’s Boy).
I was in. As the mother of three Australian-born children of Taranaki and Te Ati Awa descent, I eagerly seek out Māori treasures that I can share with them; things they can enjoy, be proud of and learn from.
It was an added bonus that the film promised to be triumph of the underdog sort of a story. I really love this kind of thing, especially if it involves a sports team. Chess is not strictly speaking a sport but there was the promise of a tournament so it would do.
I looked up some stories too. The Listener said ‘think Once Were Warriors meets Shine’. Another said it was like A Beautiful Mind. Did I read something about Rain Main meets Jake Heke and teaches him how to do that move when you swap your rooks around? No, I did not but you get the picture. Or do you?
I did not. I blanked out the gang stuff, in particular the mention of a character called Mutt who was described as one of the most terrifying men you would see on screen. I ignored these hints and imagined a feel-good film about a chess guru who triumphs over mental illness to mentor cute but disadvantaged kids.
My daughter is still at primary school. There were several young ones her age on screen but none in the audience at Melbourne’s Kino cinema. She the only tamariki there; probably she was the only person not born in New Zealand.
The New Zealand diaspora is massive. There is such a hunger to hear voices and places from home. We were all there, waiting for a feed.
I began to cry in the opening scene. It was just so outstanding and then to hear Cliff Curtis’ beautiful, rapid reo as his fat hands manipulated the chess pieces, well I was in heaven.
This feeling would have continued, even with all the menace and cruelty, if I was not hyper aware of the child sitting next to me. Bad mother. Bad, bad mother. Why had I picked this film out for her?
It wasn’t the rating that was the problem. The M did not put me off. Heaps of stuff made for ‘immature’ audiences is rated M. Half the Harry Potters were M. The Hunger Games is M. The Avengers films are M. My kids have seen them all.
My other half loves pretty much anything that involves a super hero, a gun and a lot of explosions and the girls share his enthusiasm.
These films are all violent but it is ‘fantasy violence’. The bad stuff is not real. It’s just a game. The violence is part of the entertainment. It’s a joke, a simulation, a trick. In Dark Horse, the violence is not a joke. It is the centre of the story, the inescapable fact that has shaped the lives of the two damaged men we see on screen; the staunch older brother Ariki (Wayne Hapi) and the seemingly softer younger one Genesis. The violence of drinking, the violence of drugs, the violence of kicking and punching, the violence of poverty, the violence of hunger, the violence of history, the violence of psychosis, the violence of having nothing and no one, it’s all there.
Is it bad that a child sees violence for what it actually is?
Is it bad that my daughter has seen how a child can ultimately be saved from violence not by some idiotic, ironic superhero with a magic axe but by a soft-voiced, half-mad poet in tracksuit pants, a yellow sweatshirt and a long cardy?
Is it bad for a kid to see that intellectual struggles and achievement, the mastery of something as complex and cerebral as chess, can be as thrilling and transformative as the mastery of a sport?
‘A king for a king,’ she said to me the day after we saw the film. She had taken that line in. She got what that meant. Unforgettable scene. Dark Horse was a big M but I reckon my little darling was up to it.
That said, I may hold off on taking the kids to The Dead Lands, ‘a Māori-style Game of Thrones’, an epic tale of vengeance that is being described as the first ever Māori marital arts film!