Bobby Fischer Against The World


Written by Sam Price
27 Monday 27th June 2011

Filmmaker Liz Garbus has been behind some of the most engaging documentaries of the past twenty years, netting herself an Academy Award nomination for The Farm: Angola, USA and producing topical works like The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib. I caught up with her ahead of the film’s release.

In Britain we’ve had a problem with a footballer who spent his career presenting himself as a family man, but was actually a serial adulterer.

Yeah. We had a golfer like that. [Laughs]

I thought it spoke to the way we falsely lionise sports figures. It seems a similar thing happened to Bobby Fischer, built up to be this Cold War warrior…

Which he wasn’t in fact. Yeah, I totally agree. I think that’s absolutely it. I think you see it with sports stars like Tiger Woods or your footballer. You see it with child actors. The Lindsay Lohans of the world where they have this relentless scrutiny on them from such a young age that their whole world becomes completely tainted and filled with suspicion. Bobby was an early example of that. I don’t think that totally explains his decline, but he was the biggest story everyone wanted. His own relationship – without a family, his mother was out of the house, working two jobs - he grew up in poverty. Without a family that was there, able to be nurturing around him all the time, he had a world of mistrust around him. I think that can cause people to become very self-destructive. Some with drugs, some with adultery, right? You name your addiction. With Bobby it was mental illness.

Bobby really interacts with some of the most important events of in world history…

I started thinking about making this movie the day after Bobby died. In his obituary I was reminded of this story that had these parallels to social-political meanings, bookending from the Cold War to 9/11, which really marked his rise and fall. There were so many reverberations just with the game of chess itself and Bobby’s life. It was just a metaphor upon a metaphor upon a metaphor. I think the reason that a project like this hadn’t been done before was because it was a massively long job. The more recent material is not that hard to find. But things that you would think you could make a phone call… “Oh, ABC, may I please have the coverage of the most-watched sports match of 1972?” No. They didn’t know where it was. Canisters of film were in closets that were disorganised. It was a massive global research job.

He is a very historically specific character, rooted in 1972.

He totally can’t exist without his Cold War context. He’s only that. The other thing about making a documentary about this is that the footage itself is so fantastic. I think there’s a nostalgia for that moment of television which seems so different from today’s. In a fiction film you couldn’t recreate that. You wouldn’t believe it. You wouldn’t believe the coverage of this match. Just a board and felt pieces and yet it was interrupting prime-time programming.

Is that what attracted you to the project? The black/white binary division between American and Russia at the time?

Here was the Cold War as we saw it and as they saw it: a battle between good and evil. There was no nuance, there was no grey. These are two armies – the little pawns at the front getting sacrificed first. The Soviets had dominated the sport, the US had no interest in it. They figured out this guy who was phenomenal could maybe beat these guys and then it became phenomenally important.

There was a survey in New York bars in ’72 over the summer and they found that fourteen out of eighteen had the chess match on, and only four had the baseball game. It was that popular. It could never happen again. But if there was a Bobby Fischer today it wouldn’t matter. There are extraordinary chess players now, of course, but it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t have the social and political [context]. I’ve spoken to the top US chess player who’s number six in the world now and he agrees that it could never be the same. They’ll never be that attention on chess because it won’t have that historical/cultural significance. Maybe if Al Qaeda decided to take up chess it would be different.


How hard was it to get past Bobby’s anti-Semitism?

I think that if you listen to five minutes of Bobby applauding 9/11 or talking about the Jews, you could be hugely offended. If you listen to 200 hours of it, you feel sad for this person who clearly has an extraordinary mind that is overrun by these paranoid thoughts. There were these times of lucidity where he would talk or he would have some insight. But as quickly as he could say those the mind would be derailed blaming everything on the Jews and the Americans or Israel and nuclear power. I’m Jewish, I’m American. It wasn’t actually that hard for me, I didn’t have to forgive him. Because he was not ideological, he was mentally ill. So it’s not someone who’s threatening or scary it’s somebody who’s only suffering themselves.

Bobby Fischer Against the World has its official UK screening on 5 July 2011 where in collaboration with Rich Mix, Grand Master Nigel Short will take on 20 opponents - all at the same time. Find details of that here.

The film will hit UK cinemas for general release from 15 July 2011.

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