Katie and Nelson Dellamaggiore’s award-winning documentary Brooklyn Castle tells the story of five young chess players at I.S. 318, the impoverished Brooklyn school that has won more national chess titles than any other junior high in the United States. This playful, touching, and inspiring film follows the “Yankees of chess” from tournament to tournament, as the students battle personal pressures and the school battles budget cuts brought on by the recession.
Some of these kids have the weight of the world on their shoulders: Rochelle could be the first African-American female master in the history of chess; Alexis could be the first member of his family to go to college; and, at 11 years old, Justus is already a chess wunderkind—and that’s just a few of the remarkable players featured in the film.
School Library Journal caught up with first-time director Katie Dellamaggiore—who lives with her husband in Williamsburg, Brooklyn—for an illuminating chat about her directorial debut, chess, education, filmmaking, and making a difference.
Where did you get the idea to make Brooklyn Castle?
I found the story through an article I read in the New York Times in the spring of 2007. This article was about Shawn Martinez at Edward R. Murrow High School and the article was all about him and how they had the best chess team in the nation.
I also read The Kings of New York by Michael Weinreb. The hook for me was that I was from Brooklyn and I had no idea that we were known for public school chess teams. It didn’t seem like a likely situation. I was wrong of course. [laughs] One small chapter was about I.S. 318. So I talked to Michael and he was the one who suggested that it would be a good documentary: “You should check it out.” And so I did.
As soon as I met these kids, I knew that they would make for amazing characters in a documentary. The chess team was treated almost as athletes. It broke a lot of stereotypes. I was like, “Wow. This story is unexpected in so many ways.” I thought that if I found it unexpected and moving—and I’m from this neighborhood—others would, too.
When did you begin filming Brooklyn Castle? When did you wrap up?
We started shooting officially in April 2009. Then from there, we decided we would shoot for an entire school year, wrapping in June 2010. We spent two years editing on and off until it premiered in 2012.
Given how much time you were able to observe these kids, why do you think the chess players of I.S. 318 are so successful?
I think it’s a couple of things that make them so successful. A combination of really dedicated staff. [Assistant Principal] John [Galvin] and [chess teacher] Elizabeth [Spiegel] are really committed. Elizabeth gets them excited and John figures out ways to make it possible. The culture of the school in general is a really big part of it. The principal [Fred Rubino], who sadly passed away, really built a culture of activity.
I think kids at that age really respond to that. It gets them excited to go to school. And the kids themselves they work really hard. I mean, chess is not one of those skills you’re just born with. You have to put a lot of time and effort into it. These kids are motivated to do well. The parents in the film were so supportive of the kids and I think that is a big part of the equation. There really is no secret. Elizabeth just has an unparalleled enthusiasm for chess and kids just really respond to teachers like that.
Do you have a favorite memory from filming?
There’s a lot of stuff that didn’t make the film. We traveled with the team a lot and so the kids are on field trips and there’s really funny shots with them doing silly stuff in the hallways, eating cereal from the box. And I remember being like, “Wow, I forgot that this was what it was like in junior high school.” These milestones, like we all had when we were younger.
What was your hardest or most difficult moment?
The most difficult part was editing the movie; we had so much footage. Like 400 hours of footage. It’s hard figuring out how to cut it down. It’s our first film and we thought it was ready much sooner than it actually was. We eventually found the movie, but that was the hardest part: figuring out a way to interweave it all so it’s cohesive.
Chess comes to signify something so much larger than a game in these kids’ lives. What do you think that is?
I think you can replace chess with any kind of positive enriching activity with any kid at that age. It’s an opportunity for these kids. For Patrick to over come his ADHD, for Rochelle to get a scholarship, for Alexis to go to college…it’s about opening up a kid’s world and that’s what chess did. But it doesn’t have to be chess as long as our public schools are giving kids opportunities like that where they can dream beyond their immediate world.
Do you keep in touch with the kids?
Certainly—especially in the last few months because of screenings. We’ve been seeing a lot of one another lately and will continue to. We’re in one another’s’ lives for the long run.
What kind of feedback have you received?
The immediate community here has really embraced the film. The school really embraced the film. We had some fundraisers for them; I think we’ve raised $35,000. That’s direct donations as a result of the film. Nationally, in terms of critical review, it’s crazy. On Rotten Tomatoes, it’s one of the top films in terms of critics; so that’s awesome. It’s not just a Brooklyn story. It’s just nice to know that the film is a universal story. That makes me really happy.
Reacting to the drastic budget cuts his school faces, Galvin says, “If you believe in public education, if you believe in kids, you’ve got to fight for it.” What can people who want to make sure that programs like the chess club at I.S. 318 continue do to help?
On a national level, there’s an organization like the Afterschool Alliance, they’re a partner of ours, and they’re fighting every day. On our website, we have action fights that they’ve shared with us. You can go to take action and see what the latest push is.
In your own community you can get involved as a parent in PTA and local councils.
It’s also about finding resources in other ways. If you’re an adult that has a skill, like chess, you can donate your time. You need to light the fire sometimes.
If people want to donate to the I.S. 318 chess team, you can do that through our website. Pobo has a petition that people can sign. The more we can get the word out about the film, I think the more it energizes people to see the value of programs like this. I think the movie is a great way for schools to be reminded of what their schools are really good at. It’s also nice for people to be reminded that there are really good things happening at public schools.
On February 5, Brooklyn Castle will be available on digital platforms such as iTunes and on-demand video. Communities can request screenings at their local theaters through Tugg.com. Libraries, nonprofits, and schools that are interested in showing the film can find more information on the website or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.