Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Director: Halil Efrat.
Screenplay: Halil Efrat (Documentary).
Runtime: 70 minutes.
Cast: Boris Gelfand, Viswanathan Anand, Ilya Smirin, Albert Kapengut.
Plot:Boris Gelfand, Israeli chess Grandmaster, has a shot at defeating World Champion Viswanathan Anand in a gruelling twelve games played over one month in Kazan, Russia. Album 61 follows Gelfand and his extensive team during that month; but also documents the story of Boris’ father, who devoted himself to the success of his son. Gelfand makes startling progress – drawing most of the matches and pulling off one unexpected victory. Anand is on the ropes, but still a World Champion; and the tense showdown has everyone on the edge of their seats.
Review: The keen disappointment of Album 61 is that it is too short; everything about Boris Gelfand’s attempt to challenge chess Grandmaster and World Champion Viswanathan Anand is fascinating. The tension is unbelievable, and the pressure placed on the competitors is inconceivable. Halil Efrat does a workman-like job of capturing the moment; unfortunately, the frame is limited to that moment of the competition and a few other elements that support the documentary, such as interviews with family or Boris’ support team. An understandable choice, given the overriding tension of the competition itself, but those personal narratives that seep in at the edges of the documentary will be the most fascinating for many audience members. One source the film does make heavy use of is the missing presence of Boris’ father Abram Gelfand, who devoted his life to raising his son and providing him with the tools needed to become a chess Grandmaster. The title of the film itself is a reference to Abram, who lovingly and rather humorously preserved every element of Boris’ childhood and journey in sixty meticulously curated albums. Album 61 documents the next step in that journey.
And once again, the tension can’t be over-emphasised. This is the great triumph of the film in that, like all good sporting films, it manages to convey just what competing at an elite level entails in terms of focus, sacrifice, and support. One former grandmaster who challenged Gary Kasparov for the World Championship remarks that during the month of competition he lost ten kilos without dieting. Album 61 makes frequent use of in situ talking heads who are commentating the matches for radio (yes, Russians listen to big chess matches on the radio), including former World Champion Anatoly Karpov. The matches take place in a giant fishbowl, with a crowd obsessively examining each move and trying to predict the strategies of the great players. Each competitor has a team of several grandmasters, who obsessively examine the matches of their opponent to determine weaknesses and assist their man in pulling out a surprise or upset. Gelfand does just that, in the middle of a tense series of matches that had so far led from six games to six draws. Defender Anand is rattled, to the point that he takes twenty minutes to make decisions that would have usually taken him ninety seconds. Gelfand inches towards the crowning achievement of a career; and the audience, through the nature of these sorts of documentaries, desperately wants its protagonist to succeed. ‘Lucky he is not competing in the world parachuting championship,’ Boris’ wife remarks, ‘what harm can come to him here?’
But the hero of the narrative is not Boris, but his father Abram, whose presence is felt throughout the documentary. It is hard not to come to love this man, who devoted his existence to the success of his son. Yet the personality of the father is exuded in every frame he is mentioned, particularly the man’s wry humour. Within the albums, there is even a photo of doctors performing a young Boris’ hernia operation, with the caption ‘Gorlov, a great guy and an excellent surgeon.’ Whenever Boris would venture to a new, exotic locale for a competition he would send his father a postcard – frequently with a naked young girl on the front. These too are preserved for posterity. Boris’ mother, Nella, tears up at recounting the devotion of her husband. In a stunning final interview, which closes out the film, Boris himself turns to discussing his match and his father. He points to a kind of ‘perfectionism’ in accomplishment that marks greatness, something that he felt close to achieving in his showdown Anand. But he remarks that his father, with his own effort or devotion and focus, was the man who taught him that and achieved it. The most surprising comment comes from a former colleague of Boris and now successful businessman, who sponsored the tournament. He remarks that while he has respect for Boris, he has reverence for his father – who, by example, taught him the supreme importance of focus and determination. Yet, by all indications, Abram was a remarkable man who was not without a joyous side.
All of which marks Album 61 as a film worth seeing; although I desperately wish that there could be more to it. Certainly the portrayal of the extremes of tension have a limited appeal, but I would have been interesting in knowing more about the journey and the Candidate’s tournament that brought Boris to the Championships. Equally, a measure of Anand as a competitor would have been interesting. That aside, Album 61 captures some fascinating details of the most unexpected extreme sport. Almost a relic of Cold War competition, it remains a mystery why chess competitions remain such a powerful symbol of a certain form of human endeavour and mastery; almost as if the game itself is a wishfully distilled version of the politics of human competition. In that stunning final interview, after the competition is over, Boris breaks into a great smile and remarks that it has been the most amazing (and it seems enjoyable) month of his life – one he wished didn’t have to end. Amazing, considering the palpable stress it placed on everyone concerned. Yet this is his love and his vocation. He remarks ‘the effort is more important than the idea.’ A powerful message.
And yet the most captivating elements of the film occur on the edges. After his final match, Boris’ daughter calls and tells him ‘I got my geometry exam back today, guess how much I got.’ Boris answers ‘10%! – No! – 20%! – No! 100%!’ Echoing Abram, he answers ‘I’m proud of you.’ His daughter does not ask if he won, or any of the thousands of questions that flood the audience’s mind after having seen Boris compete. She asks ‘Did you learn something new? Will you teach me when you get back?’ Yes, he answers.
Rating: Three and a half stars.