Film Festival reViews

Film Festival reViews

Dark Horse Wins at Sundance

February 08, 2015

“Waking Ned Devine meets Mr. Ed” is how I describe director Louise Osmond’s superbly crafted documentary, Dark Horse. It was the first film I saw at Sundance Film Festival amid a flurry of schedules, events, and access to the eWaitlist. The title sparked my interest–I like horses and always root for the underdog. As it turns out I’m happy to be part of the collective buzz that calls this one a winner.

Dream Alliance is the talking horse that became the talk of the town in the village of Cefn Fforest in one of the poorest Welsh mining valleys, Gwent, north of Newport. The local workingmen’s club is the setting for the real life characters– Jan Vokes, the barmaid and a successful breeder of whippets and pigeons, whose has a burning desire to breed a champion racehorse, turns to Howard Davies, a local man who had a limited amount of equine experience. Despite his initial apprehension, he agrees to help with Jan’s racehorse project. Not many people outside racing appreciate that genes are 80% from the dam and 20% influenced by the sire, but Brian Vokes knows horses and how to bargain– taking a 13-year-old, mare called Rewbell, badly scarred from a barbed wire injury, from £1,000 down to £300– and they’re off.

The Alliance Partnership syndicate is formed when the social club members answer an advertisement pinned on the wall.The syndicate includes six tax consultants, a garage owner, four retired people, a restaurateur, a painter and decorator, a taxi driver, a bailiff, a mortgage adviser, a Royal Mint storeman, three factory workers, and a property developer paying £10 a week to raise the resulting foal. Dream Alliance was born in 2001 and raised on a lot no bigger than a suburban backyard, but with lots of love and attention. They need a trainer and approach Philip Hobbs, who takes and assesses Dream as a three-year-old during his yard’s quiet time in May. He thinks the horse has promise. Against all odds, Dream goes on to become a champion.
Aside from this quirky cast, Dream becomes his own pivotal character. He is a handsome devil, a rich chestnut color with a white blaze down his forehead and white socks on each leg. His gaze is deep, intensely thoughtful and full of curiosity. Jan knows the horse better than anyone and is sure her “carefree gentleman” has the character to deal with the media spotlight. Unlike most thoroughbreds, nervously taut and high strung, “Dream is so carefree and doesn’t get agitated,” she remarks,”he knows what he wants to do.” Horses have a mind of their own and find ways to speak out. Fortunately for this racehorse, his owners listen.
Louise Osmond, an independent documentary filmmaker, found the story irresistable and did an excellent job directing. She came out for the Sundance Film Festival along with producer, Judith Dawson and editor, Joby Gee who were naturally nervous at the premiere. It was a packed screening at the Prospector Square Theatre, (over one hundred were on the Waitlist) and I was surrounded by an audience letting out chuckles, gasps, tears and sighs of relief. Everyone rooted for the dark horse and identified with the Alliance Partnership. In many ways, it’s a dream come true.
Taking bets, I predicted Dark Horse will be a runaway hit at Sundance and with winning the Audience Award in the World Cinema Documentary Competition, I’m happy to see the filmmakers in the winner’s circle– Sony Pictures Classics acquired the North American rights from Protagonist Pictures. Here’s a footnote: I’m looking forward to joining the syndicate and be part of the family with Jan’s next champion racehorse due in April 2015.
NOTES: Directed by Louise Osmond (Deep Water),