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‘The Dark Horse’ – mentors matter

‘The Dark Horse’ – mentors matter

“This amazing movie shows that good people, even weak and flawed ones, can have a hugely positive impact on children and young people”, says John Cowan from The Parenting Place.

The Dark Horse, the New Zealand film starring Cliff Curtis released last week, powerfully and realistically shows the effects of parenting and mentoring relationships. “The movie is fantastic in so many ways,” says Cowan, who has been researching and writing about family life for nearly two decades. “Lots of drama, a sensitive portrayal of mental illness but I was especially taken with the themes of parenting and family life. It shows the toxic impact of poverty, alcohol and poor parenting. Gang culture is neither glamorised nor demonised: it is shown as a dysfunctional substitute for family, filling the gaps for under-fathered boys.”

A key aspect of the film is how mentors make a difference. “When I heard that the plot of The Dark Horse was about a Māori man with mental illness helping at-risk Gisborne kids reject gang culture by playing chess – I thought it just sounded silly and I was a little reluctant to see it. But it was powerful because the heroes were the types of people you find in every community – good hearted people who help at youth groups and sports clubs. And they make a huge difference, especially with kids who come from impoverished and troubled homes. Good parents make New Zealand a great little country and these community-minded people who look out for other people’s kids make it even better.” As an example, Cowan referred to the work that boxer Billy Graham is doing in his youth centre in Naenae. “Yesterday, at our Wellington Fathers’ Breakfast, Billy talked about his own rough background. But mentors made a difference for him and now he’s making a difference for others.”

“In our society, the abuse of children by adults is an awful tragedy for those kids. A second tragedy that has resulted from that abuse is that adults are increasingly reluctant to involve themselves with children. Men, especially, are isolated from children. This movie beautifully shows what happens when good men invest themselves in kids. It brings out something very gentle and noble in the men. Australian psychologist Steve Biddulph says, ‘Even grumpy men are sweet when they teach’. And it transforms boys and girls. This film is based on a real character, the late Genesis Potini, and the film is post-scripted with a note that the kids in his chess club went on to have lives that were greater than they could ever have imagined.”

Research confirms that what Potini and the other volunteers were doing in that little tin-shed chess club in Gisborne was one of the most potent ways of rescuing kids from bleak backgrounds. “Professor Emmy Werner* studied communities in Hawaii that were just like the families shown in The Dark Horse: high unemployment, violence, crime, drugs and alcohol and high levels of mental illness. Many of their kids went down the same sad path to destructive behaviours, but about a third didn’t. A third soared and achieved. She identified some factors that made these kids resilient, andThe Dark Horse covers them off brilliantly. One is, ‘islands of competency’: knowing that you are good at something. When these kids discovered they could play chess as well as the private school kids, their self-esteem soared. But the big factor Werner identified was when a charismatic adult takes an interest in you. The spine of the movie’s story is the relationship between Genesis Potini and his nephew, Mana, who is about to be ‘patched’ into a gang. Genesis was a humble, troubled man but a hero, not because he was a good chess player but because he had the courage to care.”

About The Parenting Place
The Parenting Place is a not for profit organisation whose mission is to positively impact families.

The Parenting Place has been in operation for 21 years, enhancing the lives of families and young people, by encouraging and strengthening parents with parenting programmes that make a difference, while being accessible, fun and inspiring. At the same time we speak to young people in nearly 100% of high schools and an increasing number of intermediate schools, encouraging healthy thinking and positive choices. When parents and their kids are positively impacted at the same time, we are really making a measurable difference in our communities.

The Parenting Place offers an extensive range of resources and courses for parents and students. Check out

We help families through a wide range of programmes - Toolbox parenting groups, Hot Tips for communities, Hot Tips for businesses, Fathers' Breakfasts, The Parenting Show with Pio, Pasifika Families,Parenting magazine, Family Coaches, our centre in Auckland, Attitude Programmes for Schools, and the NYLD events. The Parenting Place is the only organisation that provides programmes for parents from prospective parents right through to 18 years of age. We are regularly called on to comment on events and activities that impact the young in this ever-changing environment.


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