Interview: Documentary filmmaker Ian McDonald

It was through a tiny report in the newspaper that sports sociologist and documentary filmmaker Ian MacDonald found the main theme for his film Algorithms. Screened at festivals around the world, having won multiple awards at film festivals in Moscow, Paris, Durban and Edinburgh, to even being longlisted for the Academy Award, the journey of Algorithms from being that single column report to a 96-minute film is definitely praiseworthy. The film, which takes us through the lives of three young blind chess champions and introduces us to the thriving yet little known sport, has already released theatrically in the US and UK and is keenly awaiting an India release. Thanks to one man’s passion for telling unusual stories and the perseverance of producer Geetha J of AkamPuram films, what we have today is a compelling film about sport, disability, sight, vision and a lot more. The filmmaker, Ian McDonald, joins us on Skype for an insightful chat on his journey of making the film, filming in low light with a two-member crew and the lessons he learnt about sight from his blind subjects.


Filmmaker Ian MacDonald

How did you stumble upon the idea of blind chess?

I was shooting in India for a film called Inside The Kalari and I came across a newspaper report about a chess tournament for blind children. Being a sports sociologist, it got me really curious. It was a sport with a difference and I spoke to my crew and other friends about it and found out that no one had heard anything about such a sport. We looked into it further and we found Charudatta Jadhav from Mumbai, He is like a pioneer of this game in India and he trains these children. He invited us to a tournament that was happening in Mumbai. When we got there, we were amazed to see that hundreds and hundreds of blind people were playing there. So in a way the initial curiosity turned into amazement and we decided that a film on this subject was possible and to an extent essential.
Did you have to undergo any kind of research before starting, considering it is more of an observational documentary?
Yes, my style is more observational. I think for such a style it is not wise to do a lot of research. I just wait and watch the characters evolving. For me, it was about arriving at the right visual style and the ethics of filming blind people. I wanted to create a unique visual language most suited for the subject. So we made a short film about four blind kids and that film became a strong foundation for us to understand the subject better. The bigger challenge was to plan the shoot, the logistics etc, because we had just two members on the team during most of the production process.
You spoke about the ethics of filming blind people. How did you finally reconcile that and gain their trust?
For any documentary filmmaker consent and truthful representation are two important things they seek. Spending time with the boys, discussing stuff with them and making the short film were big steps in gaining their trust. We spent almost three years with them and they were quite relaxed with us being around. So during the editing process, our guiding principle was to strike a balance. We neither wanted to patronise them nor celebrate their lives nor seek sympathy from the viewer.
But disability is a highly tricky space. How did you deliberately try to achieve such a balance?
One thing that helped was our decision to stay within the blind community itself while we were filming. After spending so much time with them in their own surroundings, the fact that they are blind ceases to be a defining characteristic. You start looking at other things beyond their blindness and start to relate to them as individuals. So at the editing table we had to remind ourselves that this was, indeed, a film about blind chess. We as filmmakers did not want to reduce their blindness into a story device or celebrate it. We just made sure we shot with that in mind.
How did you choose these three boys and decide to tail them?
Fortunately for us, we didn’t have to spend a lot of time looking for them because all three of them just presented themselves to us. Of course, Charu guided us to these boys saying that they were the most promising ones. For instance, Darpan had a huge reputation in the blind chess circuit. Everyone was talking about him. Sai Krishna was like a rising star, he was very lively and engaging. And, Anant, he was a raw talent. He was new to the game and people had high expectations of him. So we got lucky in a way that we got three boys at three different levels of expertise in the game, from three different income backgrounds, from three different geographic areas. They also had three varying levels of blindness. One of them were blind at birth, one has some visual memory and the other was becoming fully blind with time. So all this just fell into place and it was not by design.
So what was the biggest learning you took back from your time with them?
That sight and vision are two different things and that sight is not necessarily something that empowers us. I remember I used to go with them to their hotel rooms after their matches. They used to huddle together and take out their chess boards and discuss the match. I would feel so uncomfortable because there would be no light in the room. They didn’t need light. And it was like the tables had turned. My sight had become a disability then. They would laugh at me. Such moments were aplenty. I would then introspect on the meaning of sight and vision and how they could be blind and still have a foresight or a vision.
So are you also a chess player?
I do understand the game, I used to play when I was younger. I understand its rhythm and I think it is a beautiful game. When I met these guys, Sai Krishna challenged me to a game of chess. This boy is 12 and I was quite confident about my skills. I was very curious also. So we played and I lost very badly in a simple checkmate. I was crushed and humiliated and then I decided I should stick to filming. I understood what their potential was, and it allowed me to empathise with the players better.
Why did you choose to keep the film black and white? Inspired by the chessboard?
Not really. It was a cinematic decision and emerged at the edit table. We were trying to get a sense of intensity, emotion and immersion and we were experimenting with a lot of things. We realised that making it black and white would lend it a new layer of depth, which somehow in colour it lacks. Actually India is a riot of colours. Sometimes I feel it is a bit too much and that colour gets in the way. The supplementary reason was that black and white would give the images a more abstract look. We could play with thematic notions of sight and in a way it strips sighted people of an opportunity of seeing colour. And probably the last reason would be the inspiration from the chessboard itself.
What camera did you use to film Algorithms?
We went very basic with the shoot. We used a SONY Z1, which we later upgraded to a Z5. We had a huge issue with the sound because we didn’t have any fancy equipment. So we tried to use a wireless mike and a radio mike inventively. We fixed one mike not on character but near the chessboard so that it picks up the sound of the moves.
Could you take us through the timeline of production and post-production?
We filmed over 3 years, in India and 3 countries outside India. We went to 6 or 7 tournaments inside India. We had over 240 hours of footage and editing was an arduous task. We did 12 months of intense editing and 4 more months of fine tuning it. It was a gruelling task of systematically going through every minute of the shot footage.
What were the major challenges you faced while filming?
First thing was the light. The shoot was difficult because these guys didn’t need light and we were always shooting in bad or low light. Sound was also a challenge but we worked around it like I mentioned. For me, shooting in India was is in itself a challenge. I wasn’t used to the heat. We went to Panipat to shoot at a blind school there and the temperature was touching 50 degrees. I thought my camera casing was going to melt. Then we had no entourage, only two people lugging around every piece of equipment we had. There was also the physical challenge of filming blind people. You would think it is easy to film blind people as they don’t play up to the camera. But it is completely wrong to assume that they are not aware of you filming them. They have a sharp sense of awareness, sometimes even more than sighted people of their surroundings. So it makes it difficult to get candid shots. Also in India, they always walk and move in groups and they bump into things. So there were many times when I was trying to hold a frame and someone would inadvertently bump into me and I would lose the shot. Also in post-production, it was a major challenge as to how to weave in the individual stories to the larger narrative about the blind chess community. That took us a long time to figure out.
What is your advice to aspiring documentary filmmakers?
I feel that they are privileged to be in a country like India where millions of stories present themselves every day. You can get a documentary idea on any given day in India. But that can also work to their disadvantage, because you are part of such a space, you may take things around you for granted and not spot the idea immediately. So be aware that real drama lies in real lives. The most extraordinary stories arise from the most mundane things. They should try not to have any preconceived notions about the subject before going for a shoot. When you try and control the happenings, you tend to miss out on the reality unfolding in front of you. Look for the deeper truth and that I think that is the role of the filmmaker. You will learn a lot if you are open-minded. Like while shooting Algorithms I learnt that what really matters is to be able to look beyond what is visible to the eye.

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