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Review: Engrossing And Hypnotic ‘Algorithms’ Explores The World Of Blind Chess In India

Review: Engrossing And Hypnotic 'Algorithms' Explores The World Of Blind Chess In India

The first question that a person, previously unaware of the
practice, might ask about the world of competitive blind chess is: but how do
they play? That’s why it’s genius that Ian McDonald’s “Algorithms” introduces
us to the process right away, by starting in a close up on the board, as
players’ hands roam the pieces, feeling their way from spot to spot, piece to
piece. McDonald’s absorbing documentary brings the viewer again and again back to the
board, where fierce battles play out over the course of the film, commandeered
by unlikely generals—a band of blind teenage boys from different parts of

“Algorithms” is a film possessed by chess—the strategies,
the wins, the losses, the material nature of the boards, and pieces themselves,
as blind players experience the game in a completely tactile way. But it’s also
a vehicle for exploring the lives and the worlds of its subjects, from
different backgrounds in India, all working and striving for the same thing:
victory. The two best teenage players are Darpan and Sai Krishna, who trade
wins and losses throughout the film. Soft-spoken Darpan, who turns out to be
the best player, is 100% blind due to a tragic childhood illness. His parents,
devastated by this, have poured themselves into his competitive chess career, and his mother is one of the most entertaining subjects—an unrepentant stage mom who
is fiercely protective of her son, calling out unfair play when Darpan loses a
match. Despite his colorful parents, Darpan is cool and collected, sweet,
quiet, and effusively sportsmanlike.

Sai Krishna, who is in the process of losing his sight,
still retains some vision (blind competitions currently allow for those who are
100% blind and those who have partial vision). The young, hotheaded upstart,
Sai Krishna is a talented player but also prone to emotional despair when he
loses. The young men are guided by a mentor, Charudatta, himself blind, and a
former competitive player. He tirelessly shepherds the boys through their
competitions at home and abroad with a mix of compassion and brutal honesty. He
loves the kids but pushes them to be the best they can be. After losing his
sight at age 13, Charudatta experienced first hand how empowering it was to be
able to compete and win at something against sighted players, and his
experience leads to his efforts to not only pioneer a blind chess program in
India, but field a champion—and he sees the potential in Darpan and Sai

In many ways the film follows a traditional competition
story narrative. There are matches and victories and losses leading up to the
big game, training, pep talks, colorful foes, and grace in both defeat and
victory. However, McDonald takes a more observational approach in his style,
allowing scenes and interactions to unfold naturally, but taking the camera
deeper and deeper into the immersive experience. The result is a film that is
deeply engrossing and almost hypnotic in its approach to depicting the rhythms
and shifting temporal nature of the game. This hypnotic effect is aided by the
simple but highly effective score by composer Prasanna, utilizing a sparse
arrangement of stringed instruments and drums.

“Algorithms,” shot in black and white, is beautifully
photographed, with graphic and sophisticated shot compositions of the different
environments, from the slums of lower class India, to a Greek beach resort town
where the final competition takes place. While the black and white could be
seen as a nod to the two sides of the board, in reality, it serves to take away
one part of seeing, to limit the audience’s vision in some way, in order to
help them see something differently or with a new perspective, similar to the
way the blind players are able to experience the game of chess in a different

“Algorithms” is a completely unique film, unlike any other
documentary you might see this year, both for its content and its form. But
while it is that, it is also a deeply absorbing, timeless, universal tale with
themes anyone can find inspiration in: triumph over adversity, family love, and
a deep respect for the spirit of competition and the tradition of an ancient
game. [A-]

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