Algorithms, a documentary about blind chess players, is releasing in Indian theatres on August 20. Ian McDonald, the director of the film, is a Britain-based sociaologist. He opens up opens up the film and its various aspects.
I am a sports sociologist-turned-documentary filmmaker, and I am very interested in sporting cultures, especially non-mainstream sports. As a documentary filmmaker, I am drawn to 'other worlds', the untold stories. The process of filmmaking is a journey for me, a voyage of discovery. Some time in 2006, I was in India trying to finish a short film when I spotted a small newspaper report about a bunch of blind children playing chess. I was intrigued by it, but didn't have the time to pursue it then. But the idea never left me: I kept the report in my wallet for two years. Some time later Geetha, my collaborator on my films, suggested we investigate it further, and in late 2008, we got in touch with Charudatta Jadhav, the General Secretary of the All India Chess Federation for the Blind. Jadhav invited us to the National Team and Junior Blind Chess Championship in Mumbai in January 2009. There my initial curiosity turned to amazement when we discovered that there was a thriving but hidden community of blind chess players in India. That is where the film starts.
The researchThere wasn't much to research because very little information was available other than what's there on the websites of organisations like the AICFB and the international governing body, the IBCA. Hardly anything journalistic or scholarly has been written about blind chess. Also, we could not find any documentary made on blind chess. In way, we were breaking new ground! As an observational filmmaker, the process of filming is also part of the research process. The film reflects my journey into this hidden but thriving community of blind chess players.
My style of filmmaking is heavily observational, so I don’t like to interfere, and prefer to allow events to unfold. When shooting, my aim is to completely immerse myself in the moment. I don't simply capture what is happening in front of me, which is necessary to tell the story and to convey the emotional drama. It also helps capture the meaning behind the image, to find a deeper truth that captured the humanity of the blind chess community and the complexities of each of the characters. So by capturing the reality and the truth of this very particular world of blind chess I am able to tap into universal themes about the struggle for recognition, about striving for a goal, about fortitude, and about the relationship between teachers and students, parents and children. I think these things resonate in a country like India. It also means that this film appeals to a general audience who may not be interested in chess or have any connection with the blind community. So, in short, my motive was to make a good film that happens to be a documentary. But it is first and foremost a film about the highs and lows of everyday life that we can all relate to.
The challengesI was not worried. I was concerned of course not to reproduce cliched images of disability. In particular, I wanted to avoid the twin pitfalls that mar most docs about disability: that is the tendency to evoke pity for the subject on the one hand, or the temptation to celebrate blindness on the other hand. We wanted to avoid this and make a film which is about disability but does not reduce the characters to their disability. At the beginning of the shoot and of the film, we see the players as blind chess players. During the film, as we get to know the characters as real people and get involved in their lives, we almost forget they are blind. In the sighted world, they will always be defined by their blindness. But in the blind world, being blind is normal! So by staying in the world of the blind, other character traits come through and we get to know them as real people with all their quirks and eccentricities all the while not erasing their very real disabilities.
Ian McDonald is a UK based documentary filmmaker.
The support system
Vishwanathan Anand has been a staunch supporter of chess for the blind for many years and I know he has great respect for the pioneering work of Charudatta, who is in our film. Charu made Anand aware of what we were doing and he was pleased to know about our film. So we also kept him posted. We are delighted that he showed his support for the film and for the blind chess community by launching our unique audio described theatrical preview screening for a blind and visually impaired audience in Chennai on 9 August.
(Interact with the author at Twitter/ @nawabjha)