After grappling with weighty topics central to the Israeli psyche – the Six-Day War, the Oslo peace negotiations and the story of accused Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk – writer-director Daniel Sivan’s latest documentary represents a major departure, to put it mildly.
Even Sivan himself seems rather bemused by the fact that his new film, “Dirty Tricks,” dives into the world of elite competitive bridge.
The film, which premiered this week at the DocAviv festival, chronicles the rise and fall of Lotan Fisher, a precociously gifted Israeli bridge player brought down in an international cheating scandal that rocked the obscure sport – a favorite of many rich and powerful people, including Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.
Fisher and his fellow Israeli playing partner, Ron Schwartz, dominated that universe as the undisputed rising young stars of international bridge, beginning in 2011. Both began playing as children. While still in their early twenties, they won championship after championship around the world for six years, collecting winnings, billionaire sponsors and not a few detractors who didn’t appreciate Fisher’s Israeli-style overconfidence bordering on arrogance, and the pair’s raw competitiveness that clashed with the card game’s genteel culture.
The duo’s charmed career came to a brutal end in 2015 after Norwegian bridge player Boye Brogeland accused them of cheating and led a well-publicized, crowdsourced crusade that recruited the global bridge community to help bring their alleged violations to light. He created the website Bridgecheaters.com, whose homepage featured a huge photo of Fisher and Schwartz, calling them “The greatest scam in the history of bridge,” and vowed to clean up the game.
Fisher has never admitted to cheating and has ceaselessly fought back ever since, defending his honor with everything from lie detector tests to testimony by world-renowned physics experts.
While the sport of bridge may involve sedentary people sitting around card tables, “Dirty Tricks” is very much a sports documentary as Sivan follows the epic battle between Fisher and Brogeland that rocked the world of bridge and changed it forever.
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When producers Danna Stern and Guy Lavie from Yes, who worked with Sivan on both “The Oslo Diaries” and the Demjanjuk series “The Devil Next Door,” first pitched him the idea of making a film about the scandal, he was sure he was the wrong director for the job.
Documentary filmmakers tend to have some personal connection to their material. Not only did he lack familiarity with bridge, he was notoriously disinterested in any competitive sport, live or televised. Moreover, he was unsure if cheating at bridge could carry a full-length feature or series (the film will be aired in three parts on Yes Docu in the fall).
Perfect Greek tragedy
All of Sivan’s doubts faded after meeting Fisher, a photogenic young man whose dark complexion, mustache and shy but intense charisma recall the late Queen star Freddie Mercury. Sivan “absolutely fell in love” with the “fantastic” story: A man who is convinced he is the best in the world at something, cares about doing that one thing and finds himself forbidden to do it.
“How many of us are capable of saying ‘I’m the best in the world – there’s nobody in the world better than me at this pursuit’? It’s amazing. I think my documentaries are good, I think I’m a good filmmaker. Am I the best? I’m not even close. But here is someone who knows that he is the best,” Sivan says in a phone interview from Los Angeles, where he is already deep into his next film project.
“I really loved the fact that it was the perfect Greek tragedy. You have this guy who is committing the most terrible crime possible in Greek mythology: hubris. He’s proud. And he’s so proud of something that for you, me and 99 percent of the planet is ridiculous and meaningless. He’s proud of being the best in the world at bridge. For us, it’s just absolutely irrelevant. But for the Greek gods, being proud and saying I’m better than anyone, even the gods, is a mortal sin. And so the gods gave him this terrible punishment. They say, ‘OK, you will still be the best at this, but nobody will believe you and you won’t be able to do it anymore.’ It’s the perfect tragedy in which the hero roams the Earth, believing he is the best but unable to prove it because nobody wants to play with him.”
Sivan is careful throughout the film not to point the viewer to a conclusion on whether or not Fisher actually cheated. Also, unlike the world champions implicated in doping (essentially, cheating) scandals – most famously, road racing cyclist Lance Armstrong and athlete Marion Jones – Fisher has never confessed.
What drew the film’s producers to the project, aside from the fact that it was an international scandal with Israelis at the center, says Stern, the co-producer and managing director of Yes Studios, was “precisely the Lance Armstrong question: Why do these top athletes, people who are so obviously talented, who are the best in the world, who have won in the past without breaking the rules – why do they do it?”
But, as the film illustrates to the uninitiated, proving that a player cheated in bridge is much more complex than a simple blood test. Bridge is a game played with a partner. However, the information that one player can convey to another is highly restricted: information on the cards they are holding can only be done with signals that are seen by everyone. Any covert passing of information is cheating, and so in order to uncover wrongdoing, hours of video must be scrutinized to detect a pattern.
Audiences have been somewhat primed for the complexities and strange culture of elite bridge. Last year’s Netflix hit “The Queen’s Gambit” brought viewers into the world of chess in a similar way, through the eyes of the fictional chess phenomenon Beth Harmon. Watching “Dirty Tricks,” Fisher feels like something of a male, Israeli Beth Harmon – a child prodigy whose singular focus deprived him of the chance to mature emotionally.
Like “Queen’s Gambit”’ co-creator Scott Frank did so successfully with the game of chess, Sivan employs clever explanations, quick cuts, graphics, and well-chosen music to help the viewer who knows nothing of the rules of bridge to become absorbed in the drama.
‘Should misery be entertaining?’
After being immersed in the Holocaust for years with “The Devil Next Door,” Sivan says this documentary offered some much-needed respite. “There is something about making really, really serious documentaries that takes away from the creativity a bit,” he notes. “You need to take a step back and let the story and the reality of the subject matter take the front seat.”
In projects like his 2019 Demjanjuk series, the award-winning “Oslo Diaries” from 2018 or in any “true crime” genre, he says, a director must walk a fine line between respecting the serious topics and understanding that all film is entertainment, and the audience’s interest must be held.
“And so you are torn and ask yourself: Am I supposed to entertain an audience with someone’s murder? Or mass murder? Should misery be entertaining? When we do films about the Holocaust or the Middle East conflict, we are constantly telling ourselves to tone it down – pulling away from fun graphics or over-the-top music.”
By contrast, he lets loose in “Dirty Tricks” as rap music booms as Fisher gets dressed, and jazz music and clever edits perk up the visuals of playing bridge, which, on their own, are as gripping as watching paint dry.
“It was a great story to tell because it’s a huge crime and a huge scheme, and those in the sport take it all very seriously,” Sivan explains. “But on the other hand, nobody’s murdered; nobody is really hurt. So for me, making the film was kind of a vacation. I could have some fun with it.’”
To be sure, there is no comparing an accused war criminal like Demjanjuk to a player who allegedly cheats at bridge. Yet it feels as if a common thread links the central figures of Sivan’s two last projects. Despite a preponderance of evidence against them, neither Demjanjuk nor Fisher give an inch, professing their complete innocence at all costs. While Demjanjuk’s posture is more comprehensible – the consequences of confessing to Nazi war crimes would be dire – in Fisher’s case, “If he had been willing to bow down, take a plea deal, he would be banned for a year or two. Everybody would say he cheated – but who cares what people say?” Sivan observes. “He could just say sorry and go back to playing the game he loves.”
But for a narcissist like Fisher, admitting to cheating would be the same as confessing to mass murder and “he couldn’t go on.”
Another similarity between Sivan’s two most recent projects is his commitment to presenting convincing evidence on both sides over whether his protagonist is a guilty monster or an innocent martyr. One can only guess on which side the filmmaker comes down.
“For me, each of these films carry very strong messages. But the message is never about whether someone is guilty or not guilty. With ‘Devil Next Door’ we raise questions about how Nazis were able to enter the U.S., and about various legal systems. These are conversations and debates that I want out there. Here, in ‘Dirty Tricks,’ I want people to think about the nature of genius, and about cheating and justice. Whenever I watch a true crime show that gives me the information and then tells me ‘This is the answer’ – what I’ve watched doesn’t really stay with me. For me, the whole goal of cinema is raising questions that are more complex than just a yes or no answer to the question of whether someone did it or not.”