Interview: Liz Garbus, ‘Bobby Fischer Against the World’

CineVue recently caught up with director Liz Garbus to discuss her latest film, the documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011), which is due to be released in UK cinemas on 15 July 2011. Bobby Fischer against the World is a feature documentary that uses the narrative tension of the 1972 match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer to explore the nature of genius, madness, and the game of chess itself. This film tells the stranger-than-fiction story of the rise and fall of an Fischer, a true icon.

Russell Cook: Like Bobby Fischer, you are from Brooklyn but you say that wasn’t the main reason you were drawn to the story – what was?

Liz Garbus: I had the idea whilst sat on an aeroplane on January the 18th 2008 after looking at the front page of the NY times and seeing Bobby Fischer’s obituary. I knew something about Bobby Fischer, like everybody of my generation but only a fragment, so reading the obituary was like an awakening and it made me realise that there was a lot to this story. I googled him to find out what had been written and/or filmed and by the time I got to the festival I was really jazzed about this being my next film.

RC: And then it premiered at the very same festival a couple of years later, right?

LG: Yes exactly three years from its inception it premiered at the event.

RC: Some of the issues you were trying to cover were self-evident but what did the film mean for you – was it more than just a biographical account of Bobby?

LG: I wanted to bring the match of ’72, which was a thriller to the forefront and highlight the way that the 64 black and white squares became a metaphor for the entire geopolitical order, brought into life in the form of these two men, who each represented a totally different system. It was way too much for each of them to actually bear but in fact they had to rise to up and take on that mantle.

RC: Does the film’s title reflect the alienation that comes with genius, but moreover does it speak for those who feel the burden of success and superior talent and ability?

LG: Yes, (laughs) question answered! Seriously though, if you look at the gifted sportsman that have been in the news recently, like Tiger Woods, or Ryan Giggs over here, you can see how they have been built up to be so much more than one person could ever be. They are subject to a relentless spotlight that creates a level of A: expectation and B: mistrust, because you never know why someone is in your circle or why people love you or, in fact, what they are saying about you.

RC: The lack of some sort of childhood seems to be a common denominator in the background of most of these figures, do you agree?

LG: Absolutley. Imagine all of the things you did as a child, all of the soccer games you played and all of the other fun stuff you did, and instead just fill those moments up with just one thing, and one thing only. For example, Bobby never dated girls, he never did that “bad” job as a boyfriend, or that “good” job as a boyfriend, he never had that learning curve yet I am sure that if he was given the opportunity to do it the same all over again and be remembered as possibly the greatest chess player of all time he would!

RC: Why do you think Bobby never played professionally again? Would you attribute it to his deteriorating mental state or to the same stubborn complexity that he displayed early on in his career?

LG: It was a wonder Bobby even showed up at all to Iceland as he had proved much more elusive in previous tournaments, but when British business man, James Slater doubled the purse he was there. However, I don’t think it was because Bobby wanted to buy a fancy house, it was because he wanted respect for Chess. Bobby made chess a sport where you can make a living. In 75 when he was up to defend his title he was already unravelling and was becoming deeply involved with a church which isolated him more and more from the chess world and the people who might have been a stabilising influence on him.

RC: The film discusses Bobby’s increasing anti-Semitism and his disdain towards his Jewish mother and father, but what do you think was the catalyst for this growing hatred in the man?

LG: Many people have searched for this answer but you have to ask, what was Bobby? Bobby was a professional chess player. He was American. He was a Jew. What did he reject? Professional chess, America, and his Jewish heritage and he rejected everything that he came from and was.

RC: So having conducted all of the in-depth research that must have gone into making this film, do you think there is any truth behind any of the conspiracy theories perpetuated by Bobby about the US Government using him as some form of political leverage?

LG: Yes! Like the saying, “just because I am paranoid, it doesn’t mean you’re not following me?” This may not answer your question directly but a lot of the things Bobby had been difficult about or demanding about, were later regarded as the norm and recognised to be true. Throughout the 60’s he went on and on about how the Soviet’s were cheating at chess – people thought he was paranoid yet later it was revealed in KGB documents that the Soviet’s had organised matches so that their stronger players could progress through the ranks easily.

With regards to the US conspiracy, it was obvious propaganda for the US to beat the Soviets but there is nothing to suggest that they (US government) provided Bobby with anything especially meaningful in his efforts to do so. However, it is worth contextualising his claims by remembering his mental state during his latter years because while listening to the taped recordings of his rants we came across a section where Bobby suggested that the Jews were responsible for the extinction of elephants because the elephant trunk reminded them of the uncircumcised penis and they couldn’t stand it. (Laughs) Therefore, I don’t think Bobby needed any truth or any evidence to make his ludicrous claims – this was a man suffering from paranoid thoughts, and even though my own family are Jewish it was impossible to be offended by his remarks.

RC: During the research process and/or filming of the documentary did you encounter anybody who was not willing to take part or be involved in telling Bobby’s story?

LG: I think in any film that is about someone who is controversial there are always those people who are difficult. In particular, some of the people who were with Bobby during his last days, in Iceland were very suspicious of us because they didn’t believe that Bobby was mentally ill.

RC: So, why documentary films? What draws you to making these stories?

LG: Every film I make I feel like I am getting a mini-masters degree, it’s a wonderful life path and you get to immerse yourself in an intriguing world for a couple of years. Also, it’s relatively straightforward as there is much less politics involved and less fuss as there is less money on the line than in Hollywood etc…

Russell Cook