Barbaric Genius – a film about John Healy

by ChessBase
10/23/2013 – The son of Irish immigrants, John Healy lived rough on the violent streets of London for fifteen years, drinking heavily and turning to crime to survive. In prison he was taught chess by his cellmate. This became his new addiction as alcohol was left behind. He wrote a best selling book and became the darling of the British media. Then he disappeared. Now he has reemerged, and is the subject of a stimulating new documentary by Paul Duane.

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Barbaric Genius

A film about chess master John Healy

The son of Irish immigrants, John Healy lived rough on the violent streets of London for fifteen years, drinking heavily and turning to crime to survive.

On one stint in prison he was taught the basics of chess by his cellmate. This became his new addiction as alcohol was left behind. He became a rated player who had an incredible ability of taking on and defeating multiple opponents at the same time. He wrote a memoir of his life which became the best selling book The Grass Arena and for a time he became the darling of the British media.

In the early 1990s, Healy was on international TV, in the national press, constantly being interviewed about his book. There was much about him that made him appealing to the media, not least a sense of danger. John Healy wasn’t just another award-winning author. He had a history of violence. And it seemed destined to follow him.

Healy lived rough on the streets of London for fifteen years, fighting and stealing to survive; a slave to alcohol, any alcohol – wine, strong cider, surgical spirits. “His life, were it not for an astonishing turn of events, seemed predestined to be a short one.” Daniel Day-Lewis, August 2008.

Then he discovered chess. This became his new addiction. Alcohol was left behind. He became a rated chess player and a famous writer, for a time the darling of the British media.

Then John Healy disappeared. Stories emerged to fill the vacuum, dark stories; he’d made threats of awful violence towards his publishers – he was mentally ill – a psychopath.

Filmmaker Paul Duane avidly followed these rumours. Healy’s book had made an enormous impression on him when it was originally published. It seemed extraordinary that its author could disappear. What happened to silence this man so soon after he discovered his literary voice?

In 2006, Paul Duane found John Healy. Far from the feral, potentially violent savant he’d been led to expect, Healy turned out to be an articulate, angry, often hilarious raconteur, but also a man whose intense paranoia seemed always on the verge of devouring everything around him.

Healy claimed he’d been silenced by a whispering campaign led by his own publishers. His books had been purposely allowed to go out of print, some of them pulped. He said there was a conspiracy to portray him as a street psycho, a drunk with a grudge against those more successful than him.

How true could this be? Surely a successful author, no matter how complicated his personal life, would never suffer this kind of persecution? The truth turned out to be a fascinating mesh of class, money, art and fiction, a clash of cultures, defining the Irish immigrant experience in Britain as something that the country’s ruling classes still haven’t quite managed to absorb.

During the years that Duane filmed with John Healy, his life started to change. This forgotten man was rediscovered. The Grass Arena came back into print, rescued by an American editor who knew nothing of and cared less about the insidious way the system conspired to pretend the book had never existed. Academy-Award-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis volunteered to write a new introduction to a book he’d loved for many years. A new generation got a chance to discover John’s dark narrative and experience his ambiguous redemption through chess and meditation.

Barbaric Genius is the first film to tell the story of a man whose journey has dragged him down to the greatest depths imaginable. A man whose strength of will enabled him to escape the fate his poverty and his class had prepared for him. A man who still struggles to understand his own extraordinary life, whose daily practice of Buddhist meditation is sometimes all that protects him from a crushing despair at the way his promising literary career was stolen from him.

Barbaric Genius Official Trailer 2013

With access to John’s archive, the film makers have pieced together the evidence that shows his paranoia is based on something very real – a subtle conspiracy of class and education against a man whose aura of danger made him briefly fashionable. But in the end, John Healy just wasn’t ‘one of us’, and his fate was to be shrugged off – thrown back into the oblivion he’d struggled so hard to escape.

"Enthralling" **** The Guardian – "Absorbing" **** Sunday Times
"Stunning" **** Hot Press – "A must-see" **** London Evening Standard

Barbaric Genius was produced by Duane and Mary Carson for Screenworks with funding from Bord Scannán na hÉireann/ the Irish Film Board (BSÉ/IFB) and RTÉ. It is being distributed by Wildcard Distribution.

Source: Barbaric Genius web site

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