By Giuliano Vivaldi
Shot over a period of three years, Ian McDonald’s film on the world of blind chess forges a genuine breakthrough and offers a new vision for the sports documentary: a genre that all too-often succumbs to some of the most tried and tested formulae. Not only does McDonald show us the world of the sporting outsider (as he has done in previous sports films such as his Brighton Bandits – the story of a gay football team) but also a sport film where it’s least expected (as in his lyrical portrait Inside the Kalari on the Keralan martial art of kalarippayattu practised inside a traditional kalari). Here he has made a film that goes far beyond previous works by experimenting with form and excising all excess messages, a film that manages to explore both sport and cinema in new ways.
Stepping outside of the formulaic standard sports doc and entering into a new cinematic territory, McDonald brings into question even the very concept of the primacy of vision. The subject of lack of vision is paralleled here cinematically by the film-maker ‘imposing’ a certain disorientation on the viewer with his refusal to narrate – and this is one amongst a variety of the film’s achievements. Sitting through a sports film festival in Moscow last month has convinced me that this film is one of those rare examples where the staid gestures of heroic overcoming that one almost expects from a contemporary sports doc is discarded for a far more honest portrayal of sport. The pitfalls that most documentary film-makers in this field tend to make – from the intrusive voice over of the narrated documentary through the emotion grabbing story that ends in overcoming the inevitable obstacles and hurdles were consummately avoided.
Simply told, the film follows three young blind chess players- Darpan, Sai Krishna, Anant, and their inspiring and indefatigable mentor Charudatta, around India and then internationally in the search for recognition and victory measuring their final goal to become champions in sighted as well as blind chess championships. Exploring both the personal and family worlds of the trio (and hinting at the class differences that cut across the social fact of blindness), exploring the spectrum of blindness (and blind chess) and how it impacts on the game, McDonald doesn’t neglect to chronicle what one could call the dead moments with an accomplished poetic eye. A scene where one of the heroes discusses his iron-clad routine listing his daily timetable to the exact minute is superlative and here one recognises the need for the film to concentrate on the everyday over the spectacular, as a more than welcome step. There will be no cathartic victory during the finale but an almost Sisyphean declaration of defeat and a return to the chessboard. Defeats and disappointments may outweigh the victories but like Camus’s Sisyphus, one can only imagine Charudatta as a happy man. Following the heroes through a labyrinth of situations and tournaments, the film manages to both recount and yet to astound with some extraordinarily intriguing and poetic frames.
As a film made by a westerner centering on India, it is also original in its adamant refusal to exoticise the country. As a sociologist, McDonald is a very reflexive film-maker: the danger of orientalism and of objectifying his protagonists is avoided. His long association with India makes his insider-outsider position quite unique. His first film came from India and the fact that his producer (and wife) Geetha J. herself a filmmaker is as much his creative collaborator as producer, seems to have produced a sensibility that is as Indian as western or European.
Algorithms’ film-maker is also an academic in his field and this explains his superb grasp of the heights and depths of the sports doc genre as well as a clear imagination and historical grasp as to how these films have managed to transcend the narrow nature of the field. Algorithms is a film that is willing to risk a lot: choosing black and white over colour, willing to forgo all narrative and voice over for pure observational methods, but also intent on demonstrating the cinematic possibilities of one of the most cerebral and least spectacular of sports. The strategy of the film is one of nudging the viewer into this world of blind chess testing the spectator to find his own way through the themes of sight and foresight that are brought into play by this film. The directorial strategy of ‘disorienting’ the viewer, allowing him or her to feel themselves into the film could be accused by an inattentive critic of being almost suicidal. Yet here lay a central wager whereby the film deserves the highest plaudits.
The film-maker has stated that while his starting point- an intrigued curiosity about this sport with a difference developed into a strong relationship of mutual respect with the characters, especially with Charudatta with his vision of developing chess for the blind. His drive springs from a belief that chess is the only game where the blind can play on par with the sighted. And this has immense significance for the blind in their day- to-day life. Immersing himself in this world, McDonald became less curious about blindness as a theme and more engrossed in ways in which the nature (and limitations) of sight may be revealed. Foresight is contrasted here with eyesight and through the film we begin to acknowledge a certain materiality of the world in which touch comes to the fore instead of sight. So instead of highlighting the lack and loss of blindness, it in fact becomes a means in which one can critique the sighted world. In doing so, McDonald returns film to the realm of the haptic, at times reminding one of those experiments in this direction by Soviet film directors of the early 1920s like Sergei Yutkevich and Abram Room. From the very first scene the haptic sensuality of chess is foregrounded (and the shot of fingers caressing chess pieces is a masterpiece of cinematographic beauty). Celebrating touch over vision and, by doing so, portraying loss (or lack) of vision in a new light while plunging the viewer into both a visual and conceptual uncertainty (with the film’s lack of narrative voice), McDonald finds new ways of moving the film forward.
One of the most felicitous ways he does this is through the music (and here again he chose to go against the grain in how exactly to do this). As an Indian documentary it set itself apart from others in not only foregoing the choice of North Indian Hindustani Classical music and choosing Carnatic (South Indian traditional music) music instead. However, the atypical choice of guitar shocked the classicists. Nonetheless, the choice of Carnatic music and its use of a raga system indicated structural affinities between the thinking behind the music and the cerebral game of chess. The music also serves to bolster the rhythm of the film- at 100 minutes this is a longer documentary than most yet because of the measured way in which the film proceeds this doesn’t feel excessive.
The figure of Charudatta who is constantly trying to carve out new spaces for his protagonists in the game of chess seems to echo Whitman’s ‘foiled revolutionaire’. He and his chess players search for purpose and victories even while constantly foiled by defeats. Surely these words can be made their own:
Did we think victory great?
So it is–but now it seems to me, when it cannot be helped, that
defeat is great.
Precisely the absence of an ‘overcoming all obstacles’ moment and the absence of catharsis through victory are what give this film a more truthful feel than many sport documentaries. The films cerebral theme and structural manner help defeat these illusions while offering new departures in the genre revealing a radically special world that helps to call into question many of our preconceptions about sport as well as preconceptions and prejudices about the cinematic subject and the theme of blindness itself.
Director, Cinematographer, Editor: Ian McDonald
Producer: Geeta J.
Editor: Ajithkumar B.