Ian McDonald’s “Algorithms”: An Exemplary Documentary
Among the less hyped films at IFFI 2012 was a remarkable documentary uniformly applauded by the people who saw it – a film about sport but neither involving sporting celebrities nor about the excitement of international sport. Algorithms is, instead, about three blind chess players from India and the man who is mentoring them. Filmed over three years from just before the World Junior Blind Chess Championship in Sweden in 2009 to just after the next championship in Greece in 2011, it follows three talented boys from different parts of India and a blind player-turned-pioneer who wants all blind children to play chess. Competitive chess is a grueling game but could prove compensatory to those with physical disadvantages.
There are not so many courses open to documentaries about disadvantaged people and the one usually taken is to plead for their ‘inclusion’. Pleading for their inclusion may appear the right thing to do but it is usually opportunistic and the approach belongs to the kind of simulated humanism that world cinema is now inundated by. There are other things which can be done with physical ‘disadvantage’ as a subject and Werner Herzog demonstrated this in his Land of Silence and Darkness (1971) which is about the world inhabited by those with neither hearing nor sight. We take our own world to be ‘real’ but it comes to us only as something registered by our senses; if we had one or two other senses instead of those that we have, we might have perceived a completely different world – one even unrelated to the world we ‘know’ – because it would have registered in a different way. Another aspect to be considered is whether the loss of one of the senses would not strengthen another one. It is acknowledged that sight is the sense we mostly rely on but if we lost it, would there not be some kind of compensation? Our hearing, for instance, might become much more acute. Herzog demonstrates in his film that if both hearing and sight are lost, human beings would have their sense of touch amplified beyond one’s imagination and even a bath would become an extraordinary sensual experience. In contrast to the humanist assertion that the disadvantaged ‘are like us’, Herzog’s viewpoint is that they ‘are not like us.’
Unlike Herzog, Ian McDonald does not take a metaphysical approach but tries to examine another kind of compensation – that of power and mental domination. In Algorithms the teenage players – Darpan, Sai Krishna and Anant – are filmed in their homes, at school and at tournaments to reveal their struggles, anxieties and hopes. As the film gets going, one understands how important it is for the boys – and their mentor Charudatta – for them to win and not simply participate. One of the problems faced by blind chess players is that those who are visually impaired compete with those who have no eyesight at all. I don’t know how such a state of affairs came about – players with feeble eyesight have advantages over the blind players because they don’t have to rely on memory. But the decision may have been taken for reasons outside chess, i.e. not having a sufficient number of blind people competing and therefore admitting those with impaired vision into the competitions. At one point a blind player asks another one if he is completely blind or only partially so – and expresses happiness when the other one says he is completely blind – because with more blind players competing, the rules of blind chess might be modified to keep partially blind people out. Competition would then become much fairer. But a deeper point here is whether all talents do not only imply uncommon ability but also uncommon handicaps because a talent can only be nurtured at the expense of something else. If Sachin Tendulkar had not been a school dropout, for instance, might he not have become an IT professional or a chartered accountant in later life and less of a ‘success’?
McDonald pursues his subjects doggedly over a long period so that the psychological traits of the three boys emerge clearly. If one of them is sharper than the others, he is also prone to succumbing under pressure. In most of the cases the middle-class parents are supportive but McDonald also briefly takes up the intriguing case of a poorer boy from a working-class background who is extremely gifted but who has to take long breaks for family reasons – which are not specified. A long break from competition and practice will be suicidal to a chess player and Charudatta makes this known to the boy’s parents – but with little success. Especially moving is a telephone call made by one of the other boys to his parents in Chennai after a loss in an international tournament when he is weeping at the humiliation of losing to someone he believes to be weaker than himself – but simultaneously pleading with his parents not to cry! After the call is over, the boy, with tears streaming down his face, expresses disbelief to the camera that his parents should be lamenting!
Algorithms is made in black and white rather than colour and one senses the intelligence in McDonald’s decision. Firstly, black and white is less distracting than colour but there is perhaps more to the decision. Apart from black and white becoming a metaphor for chess (recalling Wolfgang Petersen’s film about chess obsessions Black and White like Day and Night – 1981) the choice seems to mirror the ‘sacrifice’ in developing a capacity by subduing others. In order to explore the drive of his blind chess players to attain ‘significance’, Ian McDonald is perhaps deliberately suppressing the one factor that his subjects have no experience of – colour.
To conclude, Algorithms is successful at what it is setting out to do primarily because it is certain about course it is taking. Most Indian documentary filmmakers go about their task without a clear project in mind, shooting at random and hoping that a clear direction will emerge on the editing table. If the fiction film is the cinematic counterpart of the novel, the documentary is the counterpart of the discursive essay. One needs a carefully planned discursive strategy while making a documentary film and documentary filmmakers should not rely entirely on their nobility of purpose. Algorithms provides evidence of an intelligence at work, and intelligence – more than sensibility – is evidently the quality that aids documentary cinema.