Review by Alana Odegard, photo courtesy of Green Light Films.
The premier of the Icelandic documentary Me & Bobby Fischer marked the beginning of this year’s Bíódagar (Movie Days) film festival organized by Green Light Films (an Icelandic film distributor dedicated to bringing independent films from all over the world to audiences in Iceland).
Director Fridrik Gudmundsson was on hand to introduce the film to a theatre packed full of people who, like me, were curious to learn more about chess champion Bobby Fischer as well as Iceland’s strange and unexpected link to the man known both for his unparalleled talents in the game of chess as well as his reclusive and paranoid behavior that he exhibited during the later part of his life.
It is through the experiences of the incredibly charismatic, easy going and eternally optimistic Saemi Pálsson that the Me & Bobby Fischer story is told.
When Bobby Fischer came to Reykjavík to compete against Russian Borris Spassky at the 1972 World Chess Championship, Saemi, a former Icelandic policeman, was assigned as Fischer’s bodyguard.
Fischer and Saemi got along well in Iceland, so much so that Fischer retained Saemi’s bodyguard services after winning the tournament in Reykjavík. The pair traveled back to the United States but Saemi’s stay in the US was short lived.
As Saemi talks about his past with Fischer, footage of what appears to be Soviet bomber planes appears in the film and highlights the Cold War tensions that would have existed at the time of the 1972 tournament.
These Cold War tensions only added to Fischer’s increasingly paranoid behavior. After only six months in the US, Fischer’s delusions and deep-seated fears of nuclear attack and government surveillance became too much and Saemi returned to Iceland.
Fast forward to the year 2004 and Saemi receives an unexpected phone call from a distraught Fischer who is being held in a Japanese detention center for illegal immigrants.
Fischer had been sent to the jail after being arrested at an airport while attempting to travel to the Philippines with a revoked passport. Although they had not had any contact in over 20 years, Saemi decides to try and help his old friend.
The first part of the film captures Saemi, along with Fischer’s lawyer, a journalist, and Fischer’s girlfriend as they make their plea for Fischer’s release from jail and attempt to avoid his deportation to the US where he faced an extended prison sentence (there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest that was issued after his 1992 infraction against the American trade embargo against Yugoslavia when he participated in a chess tournament during the Yugoslavian civil war).
The hand-held camera work captures the group’s appointments at various embassies in Japan, recorded phone conversations with Fischer, interviews with the team trying to help him as well as footage documenting Saemi’s travels back and forth from Iceland to Japan as he tries to arrange a plan to ensure Fischer’s freedom.
During the fight for his release, Fischer’s only on-screen appearance is through old news and press conference footage taken during the height of his career. Although he is not seen, his voice can be heard on several more recent recordings from radio interviews broadcast from the Philippines which include anti-Semitic remarks and many comments relating to his hatred for the US government.
Most of what is learned about Fischer until this point comes from accounts of those around him, creating an air of mystery around the unseen Fischer. It is not until approximately half-way through the film, once his application for an Icelandic citizenship had been granted, that Bobby Fischer is seen on-screen. After having only heard his voice and seeing clips of a young Fischer, the build up of excitement to the revealing of the “present day” Fischer is quite high.
After nearly a year in jail, Fischer emerges with long, unkempt hair and an overgrown beard and it is nearly impossible to take your eyes off of him for fear that you will miss the next unbelievably shocking thing that he will say or do. The camera rolls and Fischer begins to talk. More often than not the words coming out of his mouth leave one in complete and utter disbelief.
His rampant anti-Semitism knows no bounds and you are often left either shaking your head or with your jaw dropped after hearing his theories of impending nuclear annihilation and his reservations of scientific research.
What makes Me & Bobby Fischer most compelling is not what we already know about Fischer (a chess prodigy, becoming a grandmaster by the age of 12 or his outspoken radical views) but what others have to say about the relatively unknown side of Fischer—the side of him that makes him irresistible to his long-time girlfriend or what makes a trusting friendship possible between him and Saemi and no one else.
Me & Bobby Fischer includes a few brief glimpses into a completely new and surprising side to the troubled yet fascinating man; a man interested in the entertainment industry, longing for a creative outlet like that of song writing and who has a desire for others to express kindness.
The focus on the Icelandic part of Fischer’s life, the story behind the headlines, is truly unique. Of all the people seen stroking Fischer’s ego, Kári Stefánsson, the Icelandic neurologist and current head of the biopharmaceutical company deCODE Genetics, seems to be the only one who stands up to Fischer as they make their way around downtown Reykjavík. Their debates about the necessity and nature of scientific research are intriguing, to say the least.
A lot of material is covered in the film which means it may take more than one viewing to fully comprehend and sort out what has been seen and how it all fits together (if indeed it does).
At points the film seems to wander and lose momentum, but nonetheless Me & Bobby Fischer includes some incredibly genuine moments making it a different sort of film that gives the viewer a lot to think about long after leaving the theatre.
Click here to watch the trailer. Me & Bobby Fischer is one of 17 different films being shown at Bíodagar from April 17 to May 4, 2009 at the Háskólabíó theater in Reykjavík.
AO – [email protected]
Ready and willing to watch and devour anything that comes her way, Alana has a thirst for film that she has been unable (and unwilling) to quench since childhood. Alana studied film as part of her Bachelor of Arts degree in Canada. These years of study were a delightfully satisfying period in her life which allowed her to eat, sleep and breathe the motion picture art form.
As the story so often goes, Alana is tirelessly trying to find ways to surround herself with the enchanting world of film, a passion she hopes will one day spill over from the realm of pastime to likewise envelop the day-job world of fulltime as well.
She is currently assisting on an exciting film project in Reykjavík - the first of what she hopes will be many, many more.