A season of documentaries

This autumn offers a boutique collection of documentaries with wide-ranging and enticing themes. Two of them, in particular, stand out.

“Bobby Fischer Against the World” chronicles the controversial life of the man widely acknowledged to be the greatest chess player of all time. 

The film traces Fischer’s journey from his childhood in Brooklyn during the 1950s, when he taught himself to play chess at age 6, through his unbroken winning streak against a series of chess champions, his elevation to world champion status, his subsequent lapse into seclusion and eventual flight from U.S. justice, and, ultimately, his death in 2008 at the age of 64.

What emerges is a portrait of an enigmatic, contradictory individual whose addiction to chess developed during a difficult childhood. Fischer was raised by a single mother who was an active communist and was often absent from the home. Although widely admired for his singular ability, he was considered by many to be isolated, arrogant and even mad. He was given to paranoia, particularly in later life, when he would rant and rave against the United States and the Jews, though he himself was Jewish, a fact he vehemently denied.

For director Liz Garbus, Fischer’s life is archetypal. “Bobby Fischer exemplifies the great American rise-and-fall story,” she said in a recent interview.  “He is a rich and complex subject into which a filmmaker can really sink her teeth.”

Garbus added, “Bobby was an obsessive, monomaniacal person who, from the age of 6, developed very little of himself other than as a chess player. I think it was that monomaniacal devotion to one thing, and one thing only, to the exclusion of all else, that really defined his character.”

The film contains archival news footage, including interviews with Fischer, as well as the director’s recent interviews with people who knew the icon and who provide varying perspectives on his paradoxical nature.  Among her interviewees is Henry Kissinger, who was President Richard Nixon’s National Security Adviser and intervened at one point in 1972 when Fischer won the 24-game World Championship match against Russian competitor Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland.

The competition had far-reaching political implications, as the Soviets had long held the world chess title and considered it proof of the intellectual superiority of Russia over the United States. That image was shattered with Fischer’s defeat of Spassky, making the American, in Garbus’ words, “a Cold War superstar.”

After his victory at Reykjavik, Fischer virtually dropped out of sight, only to surface some 20 years later, when he played a rematch against Spassky in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, defying United Nations sanctions against that country. As a result, he became a fugitive for more than 10 years to avoid being imprisoned in the United States. He ultimately landed in Iceland, the only country to offer him sanctuary.  His ravings against America and the Jews had become so virulent and uncontrollable that, by the time of his death, he had alienated most of his closest friends. 

The documentary opens Sept. 23.

Jamie Fidler with a student, as seen in “American Teacher.” Photo courtesy First Run Features

From an examination of genius and madness against the background of the chess world, we move to an exploration of the teaching profession in this country. Unlike last year’s film, “Waiting for Superman,” which blamed teachers and their unions for our failing public schools, “American Teacher” views the state of our schools from the perspective of the classroom teacher.

“I realized that this was a group of people who are scapegoated and misunderstood,” said filmmaker Vanessa Roth, “when, really, the way we value teachers is so antiquated, as though the job is sort of a hobby and not completely essential.” 

To personalize the challenges faced by today’s public school teachers, the narrative focuses on four of them from different areas of the country. They are shown struggling to make ends meet on an insufficient salary, often having to buy supplies with their own money, taking work home and even taking on second and third jobs to support a household, trying to balance parenthood with the demands of the job, and sometimes seeing their marriage dissolve due to the difficulties surrounding their work.

“One thing the film makes very clear,” Roth said, “is that salary is a huge piece of this puzzle; too many teachers just can’t afford to stay in teaching, whether they are single or have a family, but especially once they do have a family. The percentage of teachers that leave within the first five years is just incredible. Teachers also leave because they have to deal with a lack of support, a lack of resources and insufficient training.”

Roth, who comes from a Jewish family, said her paternal grandparents both taught at the university level. “Until he passed away, my grandpa would tutor people in English and would help people get their passports and pass immigration tests. Education was the center of everything that was important, as were learning, intellect and reading.”

Roth added that she is saddened by the fact that her grandparents never got to see “American Teacher” because she believes the film would have made them proud.

“Whether or not it has to do with being Jewish, what I think would have interested them is that, while the film talks about policy and practice, it’s really about the people whose lives are affected by those policy choices. My grandparents would have taken that discussion and figured out what has to happen. The film is one that can promote a really engaging conversation and, hopefully, inspire people to take action and make some changes.”

“American Teacher” begins its run Sept. 30.

Three additional documentaries deserve mention:

“There Was Once …” centers on Catholic teacher Gyöngyi Mago in Kalocsa, Hungary, who marked the 65th anniversary of the local Jewish ghetto’s destruction and the deportation of its inhabitants to concentration camps by arranging a memorial service that takes place as a nearby neo-Nazi protest is being staged. The movie, opening Sept. 23, is directed by Holocaust survivor Gabor Kalman from Kalocsa.

“Back Door Channels: The Price of Peace,” opening Oct. 14, takes down the media blackout to reveal, for the first time, the people behind the scenes who engineered the 1979 Camp David Peace Accords and treaty between Israel and Egypt. 

Finally, those who are interested in the World War II era will enjoy Edmon Roch’s “Garbo the Spy,” which opens Nov. 18, and tells the story of Juan Pujol Garcia, who posed as a Nazi spy but was, in reality, working for the Allies.  He was the only man to be decorated by both sides.