The World and Bobby Fischer: an interview with Liz Garbus

The Skinny talks to filmmaker <b>Liz Garbus</b> about her documentary <i>Bobby Fischer Against the World</i>, which charts the turbulent life of the legendary chess grandmaster Interview: David McGinty

Feature by David McGinty | 13 Jul 2011

At the height of the cold war, the world’s news cameras focused on a solitary figure sitting at a small chessboard in Iceland. Broadcasters and spectators around the globe had only one question: Where was Bobby Fischer? With the symbolic reputation of the West at stake and an ideological battle set to commence, all the pieces were in place, except the one American chess master sent by Henry Kissinger to take on the communists.

Still considered one of chess’ greatest world champions, Bobby Fischer Against the World follows the idiosyncratic Brooklynite from childhood to the height of his cold war era fame, and into his later years when he was better known for anti-Semitic and anti-American rants. Prior to the film’s European premiere at the EIFF, its director, Liz Garbus, sat down with The Skinny to talk about Fischer and the world with which he frequently found himself at odds.

"The idea came to me on January 18, 2008, the day I was reading his obituary in the newspaper," says Garbus. "I think most people know a little bit about his life; he was such an iconic figure.”

The events of Fischer's life are consistently intriguing and beguiling, disparate and tangential. Garbus employs a subtle yet firm approach, creating a non-linear narrative with the various thematic strands weaved throughout and anchored by his notorious 1972 world championship match with the Soviet Boris Spassky.

It’s fair to say chess is not a subject renowned for sending moviegoers into cinema seats in droves, yet the film highlights the artistry and genius of Fischer’s playing, assisted by context provided by other former champions. “They educated us about what were the beautiful moments, what made this game [against Spassky] so special… like game six which Anthony Sadie called a ‘Symphony of placid beauty’” Garbus explains. “I think [for] some of our interviewees, chess, because they cared so much about it, made them very poetic. So we were there to support that and tease that poetry out.”

The game provides a perfect metaphor, which Garbus uses to expound not only the themes of the cold war but also the conflict taking place within Fischer’s mind and his ambivalence towards his environment. “It was the cold war, it was organised in a bipolar sense. It was black and white, it was good against evil, it was us against the commies, and chess is a game of war” says the filmmaker. “I think that the reverberations of the cold war, of Bobby Fischer, and of chess make it an exquisite topic.”

However, chess meant much more to Fischer than the politics of the cold war. Garbus clarifies that whilst Fischer didn’t like the Russians, he felt that way “not because of politics, he didn’t like the Russians because he believed they cheated at chess.” The bi-polar nature of the game provided a structure within which Fischer could function and without it his world ceased to make sense. “I think in a certain way the chessboard kept Bobby sane because his whole world was organised around it and his whole world was organised around becoming world champion. So then when he became that and he no longer had the same goal in his life, everything started to unravel for him.”

Fischer was always a polarising figure, seen as unusual and egotistical in his heyday, and, by the end of his life, as paranoid and delusional. Due to the nature of his public outbursts there was obviously concern over the films representation of those views. “There were many people who were very suspicious: what type of film were we going to make; what were we going to say about Fischer? They seemed to want us to plant ourselves in a camp of, 'Was he a saint or was he a sinner?' And of course no one is one thing only: Bobby was American, Bobby was Jewish, Bobby was a chess player. I think Bobby rejected all of those things, and he became very paranoid and convinced about conspiracies, and he used all of those systems to fuel those ideas.”

The film’s overall representation of Bobby Fischer is of a man tormented and representative of the close relationship between genius and madness. The director says of her subject: “I felt an enormous responsibility to really connect, I felt empathetic to him and I think that is important, I couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t,” explaining, “I think by the time you see all that fulmination, you see that it’s not someone who is plotting or could be violent, you understand that it’s someone who is actually experiencing this violence in their own mind and you hopefully feel empathetic. That’s certainly how I felt.” [David McGinty]


Four more sport documentaries to consider:

King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Vintage arcade games may not be the most obvious arena for dramatic showdowns, but King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters proves that sports flicks don’t need kinetic confrontations to entertain. As ‘Sauce King’ Billy Mitchell chucks figurative barrels at family man Steve Weibe’s dreams of high-score glory, their rivalry proves as intense as Rocky vs. Drago; Cobra Kai vs. Daniel-san; Michael Jordan vs. the Nerdluck Monstars. Rarely has so little energy and emotion been expended to such little consequence, but that won’t stop you willing Weibe to victory over digital apes and arrogant opponents alike. [Chris Buckle]

If you want to piss off a Murderball player (and you definitely don’t), enquire about their team’s chances at the Special Olympics. “We’re not going for a hug, we’re going for a fucking gold medal” is one Paralympian’s corrective, with Murderball challenging preconceptions in similarly blunt fashion. The sport is evidently therapeutic for some participants, but the film refuses to reduce either Wheelchair Rugby (as it’s now known so as not to spook investors) or its players to the chairs used. And with personal enmity spicing the often brutal matches, the off-court drama is more than matched on-court. [CB]

Hoop Dreams
Hoop Dreams began life as a planned 30-minute television programme. Eight years later, Steve James had edited the 250 hours of footage he shot into one of the most acclaimed American films of the 90s. His documentary follows two Chicago teenagers as they chase their dream of becoming professional basketball players, with their story touching upon issues of drugs, race, class and society, and he paints a complex portrait of the challenges faced by inner-city families striving for a better life. The film immerses us in their lives, providing an experience that is gripping and often powerfully moving. [Philip Concannon]

When We Were Kings
An iconic sporting event receives a suitably unforgettable cinematic treatment in When We Were Kings, Leon Gast's superb account of 1974's Rumble in the Jungle. Combining archive footage, interviews and a terrific period soundtrack, the film recreates the excitement of that legendary bout, detailing the contrasting approaches of the fighters and the rope-a-dope tactics that allowed Ali to finally suckerpunch Foreman and reclaim his title. The film is thrilling to watch, with much of its energy coming from Ali, who is captured here at his most charismatic, funny and athletic. He truly is a special individual, and When We Were Kings is a fitting tribute. [PC]

Bobby Fischer Against the World is released nationwide 15 Jul by Dogwoof