Making a documentary film is always a challenge for the creator, especially when the topic has been barely touched. Director Liz Garbus, in making the documentary "Bobby Fischer Against the World," had to overcome three critical obstacles.
First she had to portray Fischer's complex character. Since filming started after his death, Garbus had to dig up footage--scattered around the world--and weave together the various strands of Fischer's life. Not only that, she had to gather together all those who played important role in his life.
The second critical obstacle for Grabus was that she had to depict the period where the tension of the Cold War was emerging (because of the Vietnam War), and the whole world was going through major changes, with the entire planet becoming a mortal battlefield. Although chess had started to become popular, the hostility of that time was somehow deeply reflected on the chessboard, and this was soon exploited even more, when the world of politics penetrated into the world of chess.
Garbus' third critical obstacle was that Fischer's life can be divided into three parts: i) his life (and chess career) before 1972, ii) his battle for the title in 1972, and iii) his life after 1972. This means that Fischer's life is often summarized within the boundaries of a single event, stripping away all the aspects that formed his character up to that point. How was Garbus then, going to tell the story of a man who spent half his life playing chess and then disappeared? To overcome these obstacles, Garbus chooses a nonlinear storytelling. Going back--to Fischer's childhood and early years, and then later--forward to his life after the championship games, Garbus uses the 1972 events as the spine of the story.
Visiting Fischer's childhood and adolescence, Garbus shows us his love for (and dedication to) chess, his mother's strong personality, his father's abandonment and absence, and how the precipitate publicity affected his privacy. But what no one mentions in the interviews is that Fischer, at a young age, struggled to gain the respect of others. He was a boy among men, playing (and trying to understand) their game. That struggle was slowly draining away Fischer's childhood (and transforming the first 29 years of his life to a prolonged chess game), the result of which Garbus masterfully displays--at what could be the climax of the film--when she shows Fischer, soon after he won the title, in an amusement park sitting inside a little airplane--flying towards his lost childhood.
The tense climate between the U.S. and the Soviet Union--and its echo in the chess world, is brilliantly shown by Garbus through the rare and previously unseen footage she managed to dig up. Unfortunately, Spassky is the great absentee from this documentary. Although the title of the film is Bobby Fischer Against the World (meaning that Fischer fights against everyone and no one at the same time, indicating that Fischer's whole world is nothing but chess--and Fischer himself is nothing but chess--therefore Fischer's only opponent is... Fischer), Garbus mistakenly diminishes Spassky's unique and independent personality by putting him in the same basket with all the others. After all, Spassky was the final external obstacle in Fischer's road to the crown--the one guy he did not yet win. And to paraphrase Thorarinsson, "I think we can agree on the point that Mr. Spassky exists."
However, Garbus does a great job regarding the events of 1972. She leaves out, though, the drama of the two players not having similar chairs (with Fischer's chair being superior to Spassky's), but generally, she covers the events accurately enough: from Fischer's training program, his antics of not showing up, his lists of demands, his growing hatred towards the Soviets, the defending of his principles, the antipathy to cameras and photographers, to his so long-awaited win, Garbus quietly and unpretentiously illustrates the events of the 1972 summer in Iceland.
There is another level in this documentary, a hidden level that Garbus unconsciously created. All the interviewees in the film are trying to label Fischer to a degree that fits their world of understanding. They believe that Fischer should have a particular role in their world, and serve that role in a specific manner.
We are in a society where everyone needs something to have a form in order to understand it. That's why we put labels on everything, and don't let things just be. In that sense, for me, Fischer died in 1972 and reborn after that, as a man with no home and no childhood, trying to play chess on a higher level, the one we all play and eventually lose...
Xenios Theocharous -- Gatherfield.com