A complex and multi-layered cross-disciplinary research project, Algorithms is based on journalistic approaches to story-telling, visual sociological methods of enquiry, as well as insights from aesthetics drawn from Fine Art. As a form of critical and creative practice, Algorithms resides at the intersections of media, politics, culture and society. In the year since its first screening (November 2012), Algorithms was screened at fourteen international film festivals and has picked up 4 awards: an audience award in the UK, a Special Mention in South Africa, a main jury prize in France and a Best Film award in South Asia.
McDonald’s ongoing research agenda concerns the use of innovative modes of documentary practice to explore and give voice to sporting cultures of marginalised and hidden communities. In Algorithms, there was a dual ambition:
- To develop ethnographic film practice capable of representing its unusual protagonists sensitively, without sensationalising them or perpetuating otherness.
- To create a new ‘creative-critical’ filmic narrative combining fine art expressive possibilities with audio-visual techniques from documentary practice.
For example, McDonald aimed to avoid a reductive sentimentality often associated with films on and about children, and to undermine the Orientalism inherent in the relationship between Western able-bodied filmmaker and disabled Indian subjects, so that audiences might construct and interpret meaning themselves.
To do this, he explored cinematographic and methodological methods most suited to expressing the concept of ‘haptic-visuality’ (the idea of ‘seeing’ through touch) through the medium of film. He further investigated audio-visual strategies and editing approaches that would position the audience as active rather than passive viewers e.g. McDonald asked: is it possible to produce a coherent documentary narrative without the use of a narrator?
Immersed over a three-year period in the day-to-day lived reality of the subjects, McDonald adopted an observational style of filmmaking, which enabled a deep and unsentimental understanding. This approach also made it possible to capture interactions between the subjects, allowing McDonald to draw the audience into their lives without narration or overt explanation.
Encompassing over 260 hours of footage, including a number of interviews with parents of the youths, and requiring a further sixteen months of editing, Algorithms required detailed planning, the skilful management of multiple relationships, and the execution of creative and technical skills.
In tracking the fortunes of young blind chess players in India, [Algorithms] shows a deep respect for the individuals involved, the game of chess itself, and above all for the audience, never succumbing to the temptation to oversimplify or sensationalize.
(Prof David MacDougall, anthropological filmmaker)
The first ever feature documentary on Blind Chess, Algorithms has made possible the presentation of critical insights into a marginalised community. Through its exploration of the philosophy of the senses, especially touch, tactility and the concept of ‘haptic visuality’, the film challenges dominant Western philosophies that divorce the mind, body and material world connection.
McDonald’s enquiry into new ways to express and give voice to marginalised groups through technical and aesthetic approaches to filmmaking has further synthesised sociological and journalistic interest in the hidden world of blind chess, and developed a new language for documentary film-making.
For example, ethnographic immersion allowed McDonald to explore filmic techniques that led to a distinctive ‘look’ and new visual aesthetic for the film. This quality was picked up in the Jury citation for the Best Film Award at Film Southasia, which remarked, “on the grace and near balletic finesse of the camera-work that, throughout, hardly seemed intrusive and the seamless editing that gave the film a poetic quality”. It also commended Algorithms “for taking us close to a demonstration that fingers can ‘see’”.
Further insights and research themes emerged as the research project progressed e.g. following his investigation into the blind chess community McDonald began to reconsider blindness, not as a ‘lack’ but as an alternative way of ‘being-in-the-world’, to recall Merleau-Ponty’s term. This is captured in Algorithms when a leading protagonist, explaining why chess is ideally suited to blind players, comments: “Four moves in, we are all blind”. Arguing that true vision is based less on eyesight (to see the immediate and obvious) and more to see ‘beyond’ (to be able to assess the consequences of social action in the discernible future) this astute sociological observation became the basis of a significant critique of our ‘ocular-centric’ society.
To date, Algorithms has won the Prix du Patrimoine Culturel Immateriel (at the Jean Rouch International Film Festival), the prestigious Ram Bahadur Trophy for Best Film (at the Film South Asia 2013, Kathmandu, Nepal), the Audience Film Prize for the most highly rated film of the RAI International Festival of Ethnographic Films in Edinburgh, UK, and received a Special Mention in the Best Documentary category at the Durban International Film Festival in South Africa. Algorithms continues to be screened internationally.
Ian McDonald giving speech of acceptance for award of Prix du Patrimoine Culturel Immateriel to Algorithms at the Jean Rouch International Film Festival in Paris (November 2013)
The website can be found at: http://www.algorithmsthedocumentary.com
Still from Justin ©interventions
Justin is a thirty-minute documentary about memory, memorializing and the contemporary politics of sport, based on ‘The Justin Campaign’ to combat homophobia in football. Challenging existing critical and creative audio-visual ‘campaign documentary’ strategies and approaches, Ian McDonald here aimed to extend the possibilities of the campaign documentary genre, and to produce an affective rather than a putative comprehensive representation of the first year of ‘The Justin Campaign’.
Concerned with pressing social and policy issues in football, and with wider relevance to the cultural politics of sport, requests to screen Justin continue - two years after it was completed.
A trailer for Justin:
Still from Justin ©interventions
Justin is named after Justin Fashanu, an English football player of Nigerian descent. Justin Fashanu played for a variety of football clubs from 1978 to 1997 and in 1990, became the first professional football player to openly identify as gay. In 1998, following years of homophobic abuse from various quarters, and fleeing from allegations that he had sexually abused a male youth, Justin committed suicide.
In 2008, on the tenth anniversary of Justin’s suicide, three members of a gay football team from Brighton established The Justin Campaign to redeem the memory of Justin Fashanu and to raise awareness about the continuing impact of homophobia in football. At this time, homophobia was widely perceived as an acceptable form of abuse in British sport and male homosexuality was considered a taboo subject (especially in the masculinist culture of football). The documentary film, Justin, was in part, conceived as a means of challenging the culture of denial and silence around homosexuality in the most popular sport in the world.
The film emerges from and extends McDonald’s previous research into the attitudes and culture surrounding the subject of homosexuality in football. For example, an earlier documentary, Brighton Bandits (2007) challenged one of the myths that underpinned the apparent absence of gay professional football players, namely that gay men do not play football. This understanding of, and access to, key and engaging characters in this marginalised community, fed directly into the production of Justin.
Justin had two aims: to investigate the limits and possibilities of the often-didactic ‘campaign documentary’ form, and to develop documentary practice as an innovative form of Media and Cultural Studies research praxis situated within political action.
To achieve this, McDonald pursued an audio-visual strategy intended to reveal a politics of ‘affect’, and to construct an ambiguous and emotionally resonant documentary (e.g. by interlacing naïve protesters struggling to make an impact with the heartfelt memories of those close to Fashanu of him as footballer, uncle, lover or friend). Contrary to the expectation of a mainstream documentary, Justin is more concerned with emotional impact and visual spectacle than with the actual effectiveness of the protesters or the veracity of testimonies.
The majority of the documentary was shot over a one-year period, starting on the tenth anniversary of Justin Fashanu’s death on May 2nd 2008 and finishing a year later on May 2nd 2009 with the first Justin Fashanu Day event at the Southbank in London. Expressive moments from the campaign are interwoven with personal testimonies from Justin Fashanu’s family and close friends. These interviews, in some cases recorded on camera for the first time, were conducted to gain an understanding of the impact that Justin had on the lives of people close to him, and were not intended to be biographical. This methodological approach was vital to achieving the research aim of making an ambiguous and emotionally resonant campaign-documentary.
Still from Justin ©interventions
A filmic intervention, Justin seeks to simultaneously provoke discussion of the politics of homophobia as well as contribute to processes of social change. The film further provides a critique of both the observational documentary tradition as well as the didacticism of much activist filmmaking.
For example, Justin in effect ‘produced’ the Justin Campaign (not vice-versa): the campaign emerged out of the search for a narrative framework to place the story of Justin Fashanu’s suicide. As a result, the film is not just a representation of a campaign, but is itself a constitutive part of a politics of affect central to the Justin Campaign.
In this respect, the film extends McDonald's ongoing research agenda to seek out innovative and challenging ways of furthering understanding, developing analyses and prompting progressive social change – of partisan scholarship. Demonstrating that rigorous scholarship in social research can be consistent with political commitment and social activism, Justin can be conceived of as a twenty-first century visual ethnography of protest.
Presenting an alternative narrative to the dominant theme of stereotyping and stigmatisation of gay athletes, Justin opens up the possibility for a public discussion about iconography, homophobia and homosexuality in sport. Screened at many international film festivals (including Frameline in San Francisco, USA), campaign meetings (including Birmingham LGBT Pride in Sports) and academic conferences (including the American Sociological Association), Justin has raised the profile of the campaign.
The film has also significantly informed challenges to the stereotyping and stigmatisation of gay athletes. For example, the Football Association gave its official support to the annual week of action against homophobia in football, a Justin Campaign initiative.
Still from Justin ©interventions
For more information on the Justin Campaign, visit: http://www.thejustincampaign.com/index.htm