Iceland’s ties to Recluse Anti-Semitic Chess Grandmaster - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Iceland’s ties to Recluse Anti-Semitic Chess Grandmaster

Iceland’s ties to Recluse Anti-Semitic Chess Grandmaster

Published May 8, 2009

The April 16th premiere of “Me & Bobby Fischer” kicked off Green Light Films’ Bíódagar film festival, which showcases 17 films in as many days. The offering of director Friðrik Guðmundsson, “Me & Bobby Fischer,” follows carpenter, retired policeman and unlikely Fischer companion Sæmi Pálsson as he ventures to Japan and back to deliver the late chess grandmaster to exile in Iceland.

While the shockingly abrasive personality and scathing anti-Semitic commentary of the title character would seem an attractive focus for a documentary, it wasn’t him that the director was intrigued by. “I wasn’t really interested in Bobby Fischer, I was only interested in Sæmi and his friendship with Bobby Fischer. They were totally different types. Like Yin and Yang. It’s difficult to imagine that they would have been friends.”

The film begins by examining this unlikely friendship, explaining how it came to be. When working as a police officer during the 1972 World Chess Championship, Sæmi was assigned to be Bobby’s bodyguard. While this bodyguard/bodyguardee relationship is devoid of the sassy vocals of Whitney Houston, the rapport between Sæmi and Bobby is charming nonetheless.

The bromance continued after Sæmi followed Bobby to the US, but it was short-lived. Sæmi soon grew tired of Bobby’s Cold War fuelled delusions and returned to Iceland.

Jumping to 2004, Guðmundsson followed Sæmi, journalist John Bosnitch and Bobby’s lawyer Masaka Suzuki to Japan where the chess star was being held in an immigration detention centre for attempting to travel to the Philippines with a revoked US passport. With Bobby facing deportation to the US and sure to meet an extended jail term once there, the entourage was determined to secure an Icelandic passport for their friend and bring him to asylum. Guðmundsson’s hand-held camera captures the exhaustion on Sæmi’s face, as he seems to spend every waking moment in Japan on one crowded train or another, conversing solemnly, yet optimistically, with Bobby’s girlfriend about the situation at hand.

Bobby’s only appearance in the first half of the film is in news footage from the height of his career. This outdated imagery, paired with more recent sound clips of Bobby’s passionate, off-kilter ranting about nuclear war and Israel, builds anticipation in the audience: what has he become?

“Always shouting, a raving lunatic”
When an Icelandic passport is issued and Bobby is shuttled away on a private jet, the audience gets its first glimpse of the chess genius turned raving lunatic. Unkempt hair and a scraggly overgrown beard frame the haggard face of an aged man. Night and day from the clean-cut, suit and tie clad boy on screen moments earlier. The personality of the Bobby now gracing the screen matches the sound bytes at least, as he rhymes off a laundry list of personal gripes: Conspiracy. Corrupt US government. Israel. Nuclear War.

Contrary to this image, Guðmundsson insists that Bobby was a decent guy. “I knew him and I spoke with him and went to the bar with him. It was not a friendship. He was a likeable guy. Very likeable. Very friendly,” the director tells me. “But, I wanted to show more about how he was in the media. He was always shouting, a raving lunatic. I wanted to get a feeling for why he was doing that.”

While it never discovers why Bobby was the way he was, “Me & Bobby Fischer” succeeds in providing a glimpse of what the man was like on a daily basis: stubborn, persistent and unashamedly opinionated.

Bobby Fischer death circus
After following Bobby around Reykjavík for a brief period of time, almost too brief for those interested in delving deeper into the psyche of the protagonist, the film ends rather abruptly. Bobby has died, that much is clear, but what leads to his death and any details surrounding his passing are omitted. “If I were to go into all the circus about his death I would have lost something else,” said Guðmundsson. “He died very suddenly so in the film he dies very suddenly, with no explanation.”
What happened after Bobby’s death, explains Guðmundsson, is actually rather interesting. “He died suddenly and the body was taken from the hospital the next day and just driven right away to the countryside and he was buried in the middle of the night. The priest [of the church where Bobby was buried] didn’t know about it. Nobody knew.”

A fittingly bizarre ending for an illusive and bizarre man, possibly more fitting than what actually wrapped up the film.

“Me & Bobby Fischer” is a selective look into the mind of a one-time pop culture sensation and at the unlikely friendship that delivered him from prison in the final chapter of his life. While it loses momentum at times and the ending leaves the audience slightly unsatisfied, it is definitely worth seeing for anybody intrigued by Iceland’s link to Bobby Fischer.

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