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Bobby Fischer was an incredibly difficult man. And it turned out to be incredibly difficult to document the life of the former World Chess Champion, says filmmaker Liz Garbus, whose film "Bobby Fischer Against the World" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
"I've made films on death row," Garbus said. "I've made films in many difficult places. I didn't imagine that the telling of the story of America's greatest chess champion would be so difficult."
She spent two years on her documentary, beginning when Fischer died in January 2008.
"I became devoted to making this story the day that I read Bobby's obituary in the paper," said Garbus, an Emmy winner and Oscar nominee whose films have taken awards at a dozen different film festivals. Her film "The Farm: Angola USA" won the 1998 Sundance Documentary Grand Jury Prize.
She didn't start the project as a longtime admirer of Fischer's. She had played chess and knew of the legendary champion, but didn't delve into the project until reading his obituary.
It didn't turn out to be quite that simple, however. "I had to scour the earth for the archival footage and for all his friends and contacts," Garbus said.
And that was complicated, given that Fischer didn't give a whole lot of interviews or have a whole lot of friends. But Garbus uncovered some amazing photos and film footage everything from a 1958 appearance on "What's My Line" to interviews in the last years of his life to his 1972 competition against Russian grand master Boris Spassky for the world championship.
That was played out against a backdrop of Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. Almost four decades later, it's difficult to believe what a media sensation Fischer became. There were even "chess groupies."
"It was the Super Bowl," says talk-show host Dick Cavett, who interviewed Fischer, in the documentary. "The audiences were gigantic. People stayed home from work."
Fischer was odd even when he was at the height of his fame. But as the years passed, it became clear he was suffering from mental illness. Imagine, if you will, a violently anti-Semitic Jew.
"It was very difficult to find people who knew him who were willing to talk about him," Garbus said. "There were some people who were so sort of blinded by loyalty to Bobby that they didn't want to speak, or talk about what many of us perceived as his mental illness. There were people, on the other hand, who were so angry at him for his disloyalty to them. He split the world into black and white factions that were sort of warring over his legacy."
What emerges is a fascinating portrait that's also extremely disturbing, a biography that reveals a man who was both incredibly famous and thoroughly enigmatic.
"People kind of know a little bit about him," Garbus said. "They've heard little snippets about him. But they don't really know the full story. My process as a filmmaker was collecting all these things. And then, all of a sudden, you have it together in an explosion. I think people are hungry to know more because they know only a little bit."
'Bobby Fischer Against the World'
Liz Garbus' documentary, which debuted at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, airs Monday, June 6, at 10 p.m. on HBO.