It is 9 a.m., and I am passing out in the corner of a Starbucks located around Burrard and Broadway. The result of a sleepless night of dumb adolescence: I made a pact to see a documentary film called Dark Horse for The Peak, so I wanted to ensure I didn’t miss it.
I arrive at the theatre. A man in his 30s, wearing glasses, smiles at me as I ask him if he is here for the screening. He replies to me “yes,” as he adjusts his cap embroidered with a stallion in the middle of it. A conversation surrounding his past of working at the Vancouver horse racing track for 25 years ensues, before I look at my watch and make an excuse to sit alone in the left corner of the theatre.
Aside from my admiration of horse symbolism in Tarkovsky films, I’ve never found a particular interest in horse racing. I wonder why I even bothered for this in the first place. I begin to tell myself how bad of an idea this was and prep myself for a disappointing 88 minutes as the theatre darkens. Eighty-eight minutes later, I leave the theatre emotionally crushed with an admiration for the art of horse racing and a wakefulness that exceeds every expectation.
Dark Horse is a documentary film that explores the success story of Dream Alliance: a horse that gets bought and trained by a group of working class individuals and later goes on to win the Welsh National Race of 2009, reach the Grand National Race twice, and earn over ₤134,000 in winnings.
However, viewers should not be misled by the simple ‘rags-to-riches’ framework outlined here. The film does indeed follow the same narrative structure, yet within the overarch the film discusses many themes that I was shocked to witness. There’s the prominently classist hierarchy that moderates the professional sport of horse-racing; the attempt to create a legacy amongst impossible circumstances; the indescribable bond that holds a tight-knit community together; and even a self-awareness in animals that blurs theories of conscious differences between humans and other species.
Every time the film catches footage of Dream prancing in the shanty town grass fields or walking up to the start line, the horse peeks towards the camera with this sense of self-awareness of how its actions are changing the lives of others. It becomes downright frightening to look into Dream’s eyes and say, “You are leaving a legacy that is changing the lives of millions,” only to have Dream look back and say, “Yeah, I know. I’m honestly just as astounded as you are.”
Aside from the horse, the film focuses on the old breeder couple Jan and Brian Vokes, both of whom are working-class folk that run a bar in the depressed Welsh village of Cefn Fforest.
Through various interviews with the warm and light-hearted Jan, viewers explore her path establishing a syndicate of village friends to fulfill her dream of breeding a racehorse. Each member of the syndicate — all warm and working-class themselves — are interviewed throughout the film. This outlines the many sacrifices that went into Dream’s upbringing from birth, which includes many of them investing more money into the horse than they could even afford.
Then, through some incredibly emotional moments that instigate near heart attacks, the story becomes that of a horse tying a community together and creating moments of purpose and meaning within a grey world of anonymity.
This is a phenomenally good film that illuminates universal truths through the framework of a passion that sways between art and sport. I recommend this film to anyone passing out in the corner of a Starbucks — it’ll wake you up.