Algorithms – Ian McDonald reminds us, four moves in we are all blind. (Sydney Film Festival review)

Algorithms is currently screening at the Sydney Film Festival.  You can grab your tickets here.

Quite by accident, this is the second film I have watched about chess in the 2013 Film Festival. The first I saw, called Computer Chess, is a fictional film set up to look like a documentary on the 1980’s and the start of the fascination with computers and their capacity for taking over the human mind in terms of functioning. The second film, called Algorithms, is about the competitive drive behind India’s junior blind chess masters and the work they do in order to possibly one day compete with sighted grand masters. Both films are shot in Black and White.  In the case of Algorithms, this is because the chess board is black and white.

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Right away, the film promises to be a gripping piece of cinema as spliced between credits are close-ups of hands working blind chess boards.  These are boards with small holes that the pieces can sit in, necessary because the blind players sensuously roll their hands and fingers over each piece as they work their algorithmic next move in their mind. The moves represent the films central premise – that blindness is posited against the extreme foresight necessary to play chess at this level. Ironically, these moves are beautiful to watch and a kind of chess induced ballet that the performer never gets to see. As soon as the credits have rolled, we are introduced to Charudatta, a previous grand master himself, who is the head of the blind chess federation and coach to the four top boys whose lives we will follow.

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“Chess is the only game where a blind player can play at par with sighted. If the infrastructure is provided to the blind, then he can surpass his sighted counterpart. Why cannot blind become a world champion?” Charudatta

Charudatta is a complex, inspiring and revered character. Our introduction to him is gradual.  Initially it is difficult to understand why he is so tough on these kids who are all talented, sophisticated players. Charudatta is blind himself.  He was turned that way at the age of thirteen. When we finally hear Charudatta’s story, he has become a legend for the audience as well as he is for the young protegees he overseas. It is in his story that we will gain full access to what he is offering these kids.  Charudatta may be blind, but his foresight is 20/20. A talented, charismatic man he knows that both the seeing and the blind need leadership. He is willing to be a leader for the blind.

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Algorithms is a delicate respectful look at these Indian boys and the complicated life they lead. Like all documentaries about gifted children, a lot of the focus is on daily routine in their preparation for greatness. Because the boys are Indian, much of these astounding visits to their homes will confirm what we fear and reveal how much we don’t know, as we watch mystified parents and siblings encouraging the young men to study their schooling as well as study their chess.

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The most exciting parts of the film, however are the tournaments themselves.  McDonald and Geetha J cleverly make these the focus so we are continually on the edge of our seats as the youngsters face their personal demons over the chess board. This isn’t a tale about chess, it’s about the making of champions, and the tears, trials and successes of each child brings us very close to that state as the understated emotional charge catches the viewer unawares.  Every detail of the film carries a loving touch, as is it was caressed and planned in advance the same way a masterful chess game is carried out.  The strategies and paraphernalia used to make the rapid calculations necessary for the successful win are so precise they carry the aura of superstition and the psychical positioning of ritual.

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Without giving away any spoilers, I will say that the end whacks the emotional punch we’ve come to expect from child contest films – although Algorithms has its own twist.

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Algorithms is a gently flowing, beautifully edited film that makes its International debut at the Sydney Film Festival this year. You can get your tickets here.

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