Kanta struggled to find the time for chess with all his college work to do

These notes were provided for the film screening of Algorithms:

Ian McDonald is a scholar and a filmmaker based at Newcastle University. He currently teaches postgraduate modules on ‘Film Practice’. His background is in politics and sociology and he eventually specialised in the sociology of sports. Using film in his research, he began to make his own short documentary films, the first on martial arts in the Indian state of Kerala in 2007. Algorithms is his first feature-length documentary made over a period of four years.

The filmmaker’s ‘profile’ on the university’s staff pages includes this intriguing description of his approach:

“ . . . Ian’s shift to documentary filmmaking is informed by a seemingly effortless ‘way of seeing’ based on the ‘sociological imagination’. A distinctive form of film practice that refuses the boundaries between documentary, visual sociology and art can be evinced in his works”.

Algorithms has an Indian producer, Geetha J, and an Indian creative team, mostly based in Kerala. The music score is by Prasanna based in Boston and Chennai. The score uses Carnatic musicians to support guitar work in the Carnatic tradition.

The sports documentary
There are many documentary forms in global cinema. Documentary could be argued to be a ‘mode’ of film practice within which there are various genre narratives and approaches. The sports documentary itself takes several forms but the most popular tend to draw on Hollywood genre conventions.The characters include young people from humble beginnings who struggle to overcome barriers, the inspirational coach, the pushing parents, the unscrupulous manager, the fans etc. The narrative might be expected to include initial successes and inevitable setbacks but to finish triumphantly.

Algorithms does include some of these elements but its overall aims are quite different and its presentation of events is unique in style. Ian McDonald is interested in the relationship between sport and society and particularly the ‘sporting outsider’ – the one who is seen differently by ‘normal’ society.

The approach
The film has four central characters. The inspirational figure is Charudatta, the former blind chess champion who has retired and who now sees his mission as finding the next blind champions – who he believes will beat the best sighted players. The three teenagers he mentors and guides through international competitions are each very different characters who come from different backgrounds in different parts of India. The film shifts between the three and conveys a strong sense of place and of culture.

Darpan is from a middle-class family in Baroda, a major city in Gujarat state in Western India. Totally blind with very supportive parents his highly-organised life is contrasted with Anant, also totally blind who lives in Bhubaneswar (capital city of Odisha/Orissa on the East Coast). Anant’s family don’t have the same resources and fear that chess will interfere with his studies – necessary to get a good job. Further down the coast in Chennai, Sai Krishna is the youngest of the three. He still has some vision but it is declining inexorably. The three boys have different personalities and Charu has to be flexible in his treatment of the boys and their families.

Shooting over three years and amassing 240 hours of footage, Ian McDonald has made several strategic decisions. The footage has been processed as black and white with heightened contrast. There also seems to be a distinction between the actual chess games shown in close-up – almost abstract rather than observational – and the long-shot compositions of the tournament locations and family homes. In narrative terms, McDonald explains little (certainly about chess competitions, the rules of which the audience must glean from the footage). Instead he allows the main characters to tell their own stories through dialogues and what we see them doing. Crucially, there is no voiceover and no ‘talking heads’ who speak direct to camera.