A documentary about chess, blindness and hope, Algorithms is likely to win many hearts and minds, if not an award or two, when it is screened at the forthcoming Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF), scheduled for 3-9 February. The observational documentary, shot and directed by British film-maker Ian McDonald, follows three young visually impaired chess players from across India over three years as they practise and participate in tournaments. SaiKrishna S.T., Darpan Inani and Anant Kumar Nayak are at different points in their journey to be grandmasters—SaiKrishna is the brightest of the three, Darpan is a close second, while Anant is waiting in the wings. Their coach, Charudatta Jadhav, is the common link. It sounds dramatic, but plays out with subtlety and patience.

McDonald shot the film but converted it during the edit to black and white, a decision that lends the proceedings immense texture and atmosphere. The 100-minute documentary’s pace mimics a game of chess—it moves slowly but decisively, and seeks to engage the mind rather than the heart, but the result is nevertheless stirring, especially when the families of the players speak up. Produced by McDonald and his wife, Geetha J., the film will be shown on 8 February in MIFF’s International Competition section. Edited excerpts from an interview with McDonald:

The boys in ‘Algorithms’

What made you decide to make a documentary about blind chess players?

I was in India in 2006 putting the finishing touches on a short film when I came across a newspaper article about a blind chess tournament for kids. It caught my curiosity, I hadn’t hear of blind chess before. I did know about blindfolded chess. I asked Geetha but she hadn’t either. The clipping stayed in my pocket for two years. At some point Geetha put the chit in a folder and said, this is an idea that isn’t going away.

How did you pick the three characters featured in the film?

We started shooting at a blind chess tournament in Mumbai in 2008. I was astonished and amazed to see the numbers attending. My curiosity turned into amazement about this thriving but arguably hidden culture. I was also immediately taken by Charudutta Jadhav, he seemed to be such a passionate and committed man. We were there for a week, and we identified four-five players, and settled on the three featured in the film. One was a star, the other was very talented, and the third upcoming. Also, the three boys were from different parts of India, from different social strata and, usefully, represented different types of blindness.

Ian McDonald
Ian McDonald

I didn’t go into the film with any notions. I wasn’t trying to make a feel-good story, I just wanted to be as true to what I was witnessing as possible, to immerse myself in that world. I had to be true to the boys—I didn’t want to romanticize blindness or seek sympathy for them. For instance, when the boys cry (after they lose matches), I didn’t want to over-egg it by zooming in on a tear. We shot them for three years and the more time we spent, the more we could relate to them as people who happen to be blind.

Why did you choose to shoot in black and white?

The decision to keep the film in black and white was actually taken after the final shoot, when we started to edit. We felt that it looked much better in black and white. We wanted a sense of immersion in the world of chess. Colour can flatten things, while black and white gives you more depth, brings out the lines on people’s faces.

We were also dealing with the subject about seeing and not seeing, and black and white helped put forth the fact that this was a film about blindness.

Also, we didn’t want to over-sentimentalize and make the film melodramatic. The stories of the parents are powerful enough, all they needed to do was tell them. We wanted to strip it right back and keep the camera as static as possible. When we looked at the footage in black and white, it was so much more impactful. It drew out the melancholy without making it obvious. I also wanted to make a film that is nice to look at, which has a rhythm and a feel.

How many hours of footage did you gather?

We had between 240 and 250 hours of footage. The editing took between 12 and 16 months.

Do you play chess? How much of the game do you need to know to follow the matches?

I used to play a lot of chess when I was young. The game demands a lot of you. I had to make a decision to stop playing at some point.

Even though the film is for a general audience, we were really careful about making sure that the chess matches were true. I spent a lot of time filming the chess matches and getting the movement of the chess pieces, as a result of which the film became less about the lack of vision and more about touch and tactility. I have always loved chess pieces, they are so full of character. So if you are a chess player, you can see the matches and recognize the development of the game. We didn’t swap things around to make the chess easier—Geetha was very adamant about that. The games and the coaching develop in the correct manner. We got a chess coach to watch the film, and he could see from the outset who was going to win the game.

There is certainly a great deal of waiting and watching in the pacing.

The chess game imposes a certain rhythm. It sounds banal, but one of the things I learnt while making this film is the importance of patience. If you are blind, you are dependent on others for a lot of things. You also get a sense of being happy by yourself, solitude is not a problem. Chess is also like that—you are on your own, and you need to wait and have patience. This meant that I was able to anticipate the rhythms of the matches, some of which would go on for 3 or 4 hours. I learnt just to be there and wait for things to happen.

How did you fund the film?

It was self-funded. I am fortunate to have Geetha as a producer, she has always managed to raise the money necessary to make films. We decided to re-mortgage our flat to make some money. We also did a Kickstarter (the crowdsourcing platform) campaign to raise some money for post-production, plus we got sponsorship from Newcastle University (UK). The reception has been fantastic, and the film will be distributed in North America through First Run Features. For India, we are now raising funds to do audio descriptions (in which a voice-over describes scenes), since we want the film to be experienced by the blind.

For screening details, visit www.miff.in

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