Chess not checkers

Applying the “day-in-the-life” framework to a portrait documentary may seem like a difficult way to present the essence of what makes an individual unique. What do you do between the morning roll out of bed to the flick of the lamp at night? When looking back on our own daily routine, we might find our activities trite, inconsequential, or otherwise decidedly non-representative of the deeper “us.”

It’s up to the storyteller, therefore, to present the subject in a way that truly conveys their kernel or unique center. In Odysseus’ Gambit, director Alex Lora juxtaposes his subject—a Cambodian refugee displaced and homeless stateside—with chess. The narrative arc, although contained from sunrise to sunset, highlights the man’s interactions with others. And in doing so, Lora is able to unearth not only how the man views his own situation, but also his worldview toward his home country and American intervention during the Cambodian genocide.

“I didn’t put myself in a stalemate,” he says with no small degree of chagrin. “I didn’t ask anybody to kill my parents or steal me away to the United States.” By anchoring the composition in chess, the game around which the man both literally and metaphysically orients his life, Lora uses a great deal of pathos in comparing the man’s tumultuous past and hapless future with the strategic nature of the game.

Lora crystallizes the dichotomy between the subject and chess through direct interview, close ups of his face, his children, and the chessboard, and scenes of interactions with strangers. He feels most at peace playing a game of calculation, foresight and raw control, where in life he’s been categorically stripped of those freedoms. The man is, if nothing else, a quintessential victim of circumstance.

Another powerful compositional strategy Lora employs is the quick, but well-timed use of war footage from 1970’s Cambodia. These images, peppered strategically alongside the subject’s narration, provide a visceral connection between the audience and the man. And even though the portrait shows him in the present, you begin to contextualize the subject with an entire country, transforming his identity, essence, and portrayal from one of eccentric homeless man (something of a tired motif) to one of a father, son, brother, and observer of society haunted by an unshakable past.

How critical is it to incorporate the subject’s upbringing in their portrait? Does it cheapen all they are today—their accomplishments, goals, even foibles—to contextualize them with their past? Is it even possible to extract the essence of individual when just documenting a single day in their life?

-BM

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