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Can you take the boy out of Hamlet - and place him in Paris? Oui.



You know how Mr. Rogers was always welcoming some new and interesting person to his neighborhood with his trademark greeting “Look who just stopped in, boys and girls”?


That’s kind of what conversations with Ken Mask are like.

Conversations with Mask, a polymath who - among other things - is a contributor to The Saunders Report, are sometimes interrupted when interesting and well-known people drop by his Chapel Hill crib or call him on the phone.


As I spoke with Mask early one Sunday morning a week ago, stopping by his home was Grammy-winning musician and composer Wynton Marsalis, who sat down and tickled the ivories on Mask’s piano while visiting.

A few weeks prior to that, our phone conversation was interrupted when TONY-award nominated actor Wendell Pierce, another longtime friend, beeped in. Mask’s relationship with Pierce helped him write for us one of the first and best stories about Pierce after he received the TONY nomination for Death of a Salesman.

Marsalis and Mask have been friends for about 30 years, and Pierce and he met over their shared love of movies and theater.

It is that love for movies that will probably make it harder for Mask to maintain whatever anonymity he has, an anonymity he appreciates since it makes his day job - a concierge physician - easier.


The Hamlet native, UNC grad and author recently returned from the Cannes Film Festival in Paris, where a short documentary he wrote and directed was the official selection for the Diversity Short Films Showcase at the festival.

In 2019, Mask and some Louisiana friends finished a movie called The Opera Game. It’s the story of the life of the brilliant Paul Morphy, a 19th century New Orleans native who is regarded by some as the greatest chess player ever.

To promote that movie, Mask said, “I invited international grandmaster Pontus Carlsson to come over to America from the Czech Republic… Wendell helped us get him here. He was in New Orleans for two weeks, and helped publicize our movie throughout the city. We captured his visit on film.”

The result was a 12-minute documentary called Building Minds With Chess.

“I sent that short film out to a colleague who has worked with Eddie Murphy since 1991,” Mask said, “Feteroff Colen, and he suggested that we submit it to Cannes.”

Pictured from left to right: Ken Mask, Grandmaster Pontus Carlsson and producer Matt Dillion chillin' in Paris.

Yolanda Brinkley, founder of Diversity in Cannes, an independent film movement associated with the world’s most prestigious film festival, said in a press release “The competition was stiff, with over 200 submissions from 31 countries, including China, Denmark, Bolivia, Nigeria, Jamaica, Japan, Ukraine, Turkey and

New Zealand. However, Building Minds With Chess prevailed” to become one of 18 films shown at the festival.

For a couple of chess prodigies, both Carlsson’s and Morphy’s life stories dispel the notion some people – okay, maybe just I – have that chess players are cloistered eggheads who live inside their minds, forever pondering their next move on a square board.

Morphy’s fascinating life was one of privilege that descended into madness and tragedy.

Carlsson was born in Colombia, but his parents died when he was a toddler from violence related to drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s cartel.

He was then adopted from an orphanage by a Swedish family; his adoptive father just happened to be chairman of the Swedish Chess Federation who stoked his interest in the game.

In addition to being a Grandmaster, Carlsson is an international ambassador for what Mask calls “The beautiful game.” (Okay, all of you soccer fans: he said it, not I.)

I know what you're thinking: Should you make it a point to see The Opera Game and, when it’s available, Building Minds With Chess, even if you're not a chess fan?

Oui, oui.


1 Comment


Guest
Jun 30, 2023

The Hamlet native, UNC grad and author recently returned from the Cannes Film Festival in Paris, The Cannes Film Festival was not held in Paris but in Cannes, in the Cote d Azur.

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For over 20 years, Barry was a columnist for The News & Observer in Raleigh, NC. He also wrote for other publications, such as the Atlanta Constitution and the Richmond County Daily Journal. Often described as powerfully honest and illustratively funny, Barry's writing is both loved and hated by readers- sometimes simultaneously.  

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