Filmed over four years, Algorithms follows the lives of a couple young, blind, chess-playing hopefuls as they spend their lives training and competing in chess tournaments. We follow them through their daily schedules, get exposed to their home lives, are introduced to their families. It’s here that the heart of the film resides, despite the lack of explicit focus on chess. As these young players and their parents relay the story of how they came to lose their vision, it becomes clear how diverse the experiences of these people truly are. McDonald’s generous direction allows for ample time to really explore these various lives, favoring smaller moments over any kind of overarching statement.
The presentation of chess itself is simultaneously the film’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. While observing these blind competitors play is a deeply fascinating experience in-and-of itself, McDonald’s committed “hands-off” style of filmmaking results in a fairly muddled competitive narrative. On the grand scale, the tournaments being attended all seem to generally blur together. There’s no clear logical progression or build up from one to another. The players have personal, domestic moments and then the film propels itself into yet another tournament. While the success or failures of these players is engaging on a level of personal investment, the tension of the piece is low due to the lack of sufficient context or narrative structure. Games are played, tournaments are won and lost, however their significance remains fairly nebulous throughout the piece.
Lack of structural specificity aside, Algorithms does succeed where it’s really important. At the end of the day, it isn’t a sports film. Dramatic tension is of secondary importance. What matters, it would seem, to McDonald is sincere and delicate exploration of the lives of these young chess players. And in this regard he succeeds marvelously. The material he shoots speaks almost entirely for itself. The passions and desires of these chess hopefuls, though lacking the glamor and pizazz of other competitive arenas, become engaging and engrossing throughout the film’s runtime. A perfect documentary? No. But a sincere one. And sincerity is perhaps the most essential virtue of documentary filmmaking.