Algorithms is not about blindness as a disability
It’s touted as the first ever documentary on blind chess players and has won accolades across several international film festivals. Award-winning documentary filmmaker Ian McDonald’s Algorithms touches upon a subject that nobody knows about, yet it has a universal appeal that touches the right chords. In a freewheeling chat with Pandolin, Ian talks about the inception of the idea, the experience & challenges of shooting with visually impaired kids and adults, and why he felt that sight is a disability in the land of the blind. Algorithms will be released by PVR Director’s Rare on August 21.
How did you discover the concept of blind chess in India? What inspired you to make a film on it?
It was back in 2006 that I first came across blind chess. At that time, I was finishing a short documentary in India with Geetha, the Producer of Algorithms, who was also the producer of that documentary. I happened to come across a small newspaper report, which talked about these blind children who were playing chess. And that got me curious. I asked Geetha if it was common in India but she had never heard of it. I also asked some chess players whom we knew and they too didn’t know about blind people playing chess. However, at that time, I was engaged in other projects in England so had to go back. I just cut out the newspaper report and put it in my wallet. But it was an idea that wouldn’t leave us.
Two years later at the end of 2008, we returned to India to look into it further, and that’s when we came across Charudatta Jadhav who is one of the main characters in the film. He was, at that time, the General Secretary of the All India Chess Federation For the Blind. He invited us to Mumbai for the National Blind Chess Championship in January 2009. We went without too many expectations but when we got there we were amazed to see literally hundreds of visually impaired adults and kids playing competitive chess. We were blown away by it. I knew that I had to make a film about it, something that people didn’t know about. It’s an extraordinary topic with so many layers and I was really intrigued by the concept.
Having made several documentaries in the past, what is it that differentiates Algorithms from your past works?
Three years is a long time to spend on the shoot of a film. It made me get a level of depth and an insight into the truth. In all my previous films I’ve tried to be as observational as possible but sometimes it’s actually much harder than people think to make an observational film. For this film I tried to stick to the observational style and that meant investing time to get worthy enough footage that is necessary to construct a story. I think it’s the depth of treatment and the time I’ve spent with the characters that differentiates this film. Also, in my previous films, the subject matter varies and often the audience that sees the film is interested in that subject. For instance I made a film about football and lots of people are interested in football, I made a film about an artist in South Africa and lots of people are interested because it’s a famous artist.
But nobody knows about blind chess players, there are no famous names; it’s not part of popular culture. So for me the most intriguing part was that this is a subject matter that nobody knows about, but through this particular subject I’m able to explore universal things that speak to a much broader audience. This film transcends its subject and you don’t have to understand or like chess to appreciate the film. It’s such a universal thing, a story of struggle, ambition, achievement, a story of parents and children, teachers and students, things that resonate with everyone and ultimately I think it’s a story of fortitude. You may not achieve your goal but you reflect on the journey and the progress you made during the journey. The key thing is to keep going forward and for me that is the lesson of Algorithms.
Why did it take such a long time to film this documentary?
Partly because it was an observational film. More importantly, because it’s a world that I don’t know, you can’t just go in there and do something quickly. It takes a while to understand people, their patterns of behavior, the way they talk and the kind of conversations they have. Only once you’ve been there for a long period of time can you understand and anticipate when these things will happen. There were lots of little conversations that the blind people had with the other blind people. For instance, when a blind boy meets a blind player from another country, they will routinely have conversations about levels of blindness; how blind is the opposite person – 100 per cent or 80 per cent, and there is a kind of solidarity amongst those that are totally blind. I witnessed this quite a few times but wasn’t able to capture it with my camera. But when I went to Serbia for a tournament, I knew that a conversation like this would happen so I was ready to place myself at the right time and capture the natural conversation while they spoke about the levels of blindness. To be able to capture these authentic moments, you need to spend time.
Secondly, like with any documentary, you have to gain the trust of your subject, but I think with the blind community it takes a bit longer, and you have to be more sensitive to their anxieties. Also there are some ethical parameters involved in shooting documentaries and these are amplified when you’re shooting blind people. They (blind chess players) were pretty anxious about what I was doing, how I would represent them, especially if I was being true to them as people who happen to be blind but have a passion for chess. And that was my agenda as well. We all agreed that we didn’t want it to be something sentimental; we didn’t want to play the pity card and weren’t looking for people’s sympathy. We wanted to show the truth about their lives and that meant showing the highs and the lows.
Also, there was a certain barrier with me being a foreigner and that too male. In this regard having Geetha by my side really helped. First of all it was a small crew, just the two of us, which allowed intimacy that you don’t get if you have a large crew. Secondly Geetha was absolutely crucial in gaining the trust of the parents, and she became like a surrogate mother to the kids as well. The fact that she’s female, speaks Hindi and Tamil was really helpful. She was a former journalist so she knew the style of interviewing and giving subjects the space to talk. She had a very gentle style of interviewing that enabled them to open up and trust us. That takes time. But in order to do justice to the subject, we needed this level of involvement.
How did the title ‘Algorithms’ come into being?
For a long while we had the working title as ‘The Chess Players.’ Then we came up with ‘The Chess Masters’ and things like that. In the end ‘Algorithms’ emerged because we became clear that we didn’t want a title that was too obvious. We wanted something that was a little abstract. The film in itself is not didactic, there is no voice over or presenter; we want people to engage with it and raise questions in their own mind. The answers are all there in the film, but no one is telling you, you have to work it out yourself. We wanted a title to reflect that. So when people ask why did you call it Algorithms, already there is a question, even before you watch the film. It has that level of obliqueness that we were looking for in order to avoid a direct relationship. But there is a kind of relationship because ‘Algorithms’ is a chess term; chess algorithms are a specific pattern of movement that chess players can learn. Algorithms in themselves are route maps of how you get from once place to another, taking into account possible deviations, blockages etc. It also applies to the experience of being blind. As a blind person you think algorithmically everyday, you have to think how to get from A to B and you have to work it out in advance. ‘Algorithms’ spoke the experience of being blind in the world, but it also spoke about an aptitude for chess, which made sense. And also, Geetha tells me that like Chess, Algorithms originated in India, so that was nice.
You’ve donned multiple hats for this film – Director, Cinematographer and Editor – Was it a conscious decision and why?
It was partly a budgetary constraint because it is a totally independent production. We had to finance the shoot ourselves. Secondly, in an observational film you cannot direct, you have the camera and what you shoot is the film. For me the process of shooting is the process of filmmaking and once that was done, I realized that with 250 hours of footage, it wouldn’t be fair to ask an editor to come and make sense of all of that. Geetha and myself sat down for around 12 – 16 months and systematically went through the footage and found the story, the narrative, and got a structure. We got it down to a four-hour rough cut and then brought in Ajithkumar, a professional editor. We actually had an eight-hour rough cut but got it down to four and said, “this is a four hour film”. Then Ajith came in and we got it down to a 100 minutes, it was tough, but documentaries of this type are made on the edit table.
Which parts of India did you’ll travel to shoot? Also, was there a particular manner in which you chose the players who would feature in the film?
We found the three main characters of the film in the very first shoot in Mumbai. It wasn’t that we were told to do a film on these three boys, Charu didn’t suggest anything and left us to it. Our only criteria was to see the most promising youngsters, boys or girls, who were dedicated to chess and had ambition in the game. When we got there we were looking for juniors and there was Darpan who was the number one in Junior Blind Chess and his reputation preceded him. He is an amazing kid, very charming, eccentric, and quite brilliant. Secondly SaiKrishna was someone you couldn’t ignore, he is this effervescent, lively and happy-go-lucky 12-year-old and the rising star in Junior Blind Chess. In fact he was emerging as Darpan’s rival. Anant came on board because we were told that he had just taken to chess, was a newcomer, but was very talented and was expected to progress rapidly. Anant was totally blind as was Darpan. SaiKrishna is partially blind. Charu wasn’t originally thought off as a key character in the film, we thought he’d be in the background while we focused on the kids. But Charu was the common thread that ran throughout the film. His story emerges as the film develops and he emerges as the fourth most character.
It so happened that the three boys were from different parts of India. SaiKrishna is from Chennai so we spent time with him and his family. We went to Baroda where Darpan was based and to Bhubaneshwar where Anant lived and Charu lived in Mumbai. The tournaments happened all over India. I went to all these places that I’d never heard of and would have never gone to, had it not been for the film. Places like Coimbatore, Nanded, Panipat where tournaments were being held in these old government blind schools. We had the opportunity to travel all over India and then internationally as the players qualified for international tournaments as well. So I went with SaiKrishna to Sweden, Serbia with Darpan and then to Greece as SaiKrishna and Darpan both qualified for the World Junior Chess Championship for the Blind. It was great to be with them because it was the first time they were traveling to foreign countries, so that was also an experience.
Being a documentary, what were the challenges you faced while shooting it?
There were a number of challenges. I think shooting in India is in itself challenging, particularly with the heat and dust. Coping with the temperatures, though I’m used to it, to a certain extent, was physically demanding. Also, one would think that shooting close ups in the blind community would be easy and that they wouldn’t be conscious of the camera, which is important for an observational film. But they have a great sense and immediately know when there is somebody else in the room. Even when I tried to film them without their knowing, they would always know, I could see them sensing it. So what I thought to be an advantage, turned-out to be not such an advantage. Another thing was that in India, the blind chess community is full of people all the time. The chess matches are busy occasions with people moving around all the time. Very often I would be focusing over a chess board, holding the frame, waiting for someone to make a move and right that at that time, when someone is making a move, and I think I’ve got the shot, someone would bump into me.
The other thing is that in the land of the blind, sight is a disability; when I was with them, I would be the disabled one. For instance, while in Serbia, after every match they would go to the hotel room and have a discussion about the match, and I would follow them and film the post mortem. On one occasion we went into the room, which was pretty dark and dingy. And they started talking about the match. I had to request them to hold on as I was struggling to find light; I couldn’t operate without light. And Charu happily declared, “That’s your problem Ian, We don’t need light”. So the tables were completely turned. The film is not about blindness as a disability, it is about blindness as a different way of being in a world that operates through sound and touch. And it’s no lesser that being in the world of the sighted person. I don’t want to romanticize this but I found more humanity amongst the blind community than we find in the sighted one. There is a humility that comes from the acceptance of being dependent on others. They are much more connected to each other.
Documentaries are often perceived as simply information giving and slightly monotonous films. As a documentary filmmaker, how did you make a film that is interesting and creates an impact?
I know that the moment you mention the word ‘documentary’ people have a particular perception, which puts up a barrier. And this is the fault of us documentary filmmakers because too many of our documentaries are quite frankly boring and preachy. But I really believe that there is more emotion and emotional drama in everyday life than a fanciful world of say Bollywood, for example. I don’t approach documentaries as a documentary filmmaker but as a filmmaker who is trying to tell a story and tell it in a way that captures the emotions and engages people who might not be interested in chess or be particularly connected to the blind community but can still relate to it because it speaks to them. You have to find that kind of a story that transcends the subject. People should be able to identify with the emotions. We need to see documentaries as stories we are telling about the real world and make sure that they are as engaging and emotional as any fiction film. We have been showing the film in the film circuit for a while now and most people seeing this film don’t know about India, they have no connection with blind chess at all, but they can relate to it; for them it feels more like a movie than a documentary.
How did your association with the producer Geetha J happen?
I guess the fact that she is my wife as well would answer that (laughs). It was Geetha that got me into filmmaking. I come from a sociology background and was like a sociologist with a camera, roaming around India when I met her. I used the camera to record my research and then I met Geetha who was a filmmaker and film journalist at the time. She gave me the confidence and support to be able to make films. She is central to my journey as a filmmaker. She produces my films and in Algorithms she is the main producer. But her role is not limited to that. The film is a creative collaboration of both of our experiences and worldview.
What message would you like to give people to encourage them to watch this film?
I just want them to go with an open mind and not perceive it as a film in which they need to feel guilty or think that they are going to be taught a lesson of any kind. They should go with a sense that this is a movie that will give them an insight into life and reflect their own experiences. The movie reflects a gamut of emotions – it will make you laugh, make you cry and make you think about the world.