It’s rare that a heartwarming feel-good story — say, of an under-funded Brooklyn public middle school managing to build a juggernaut of a nationally successful chess team — is truly as good as it sounds. And then a documentary like Brooklyn Castle comes along, scooping up audience favorite awards right and left, including at this year’s SXSW.
Both a critical and word-of-mouth darling, the film follows the staggering success of one Williamsburg middle school, I.S. 318, whose young chess players are among the top ranked in the nation, even among high school students. Over the course of the movie, the surprisingly candid group of kids learn the intricacies of the game and face the excruciating transition into adolescence, all while fighting against crippling, recession-induced school budget cuts. Ultimately, Brooklyn Castle makes as much of a case for after-school programs (and, you know, appropriately funding public schools the way we’re supposed to) as it does for actually learning to play chess.
In the lead-up to its release in theaters today, we spoke with director (and recent Brooklyn Film Festival “Best New Director” winner) Katie Dellamaggiore about the I.S. 318 team, getting an independent film made in Brooklyn, and whether or not her chess game has improved.
How did you first get interested in the I.S. 318 chess team? What were your first impressions on early visits to the school and meetings with the team?
I was intrigued by the idea that the story defied expectations. People don’t expect a Title I school (more than 60% of the students are from low-income households) in Brooklyn to have the number one chess team in the country. I certainly didn’t, and I’m from Brooklyn! I was really proud to find out that we had this little gem of a school right here in our backyard.
When I first got to I.S. 318, I didn’t know what to expect. The thing that surprised me most was how compelling it was to watch Elizabeth (Vicary) Spiegel teach the kids chess. Although I’m not a chess player, I was completely enthralled by watching her teach, even though I couldn’t figure out what she was talking about. I thought “You must be a pretty darn good teacher,” because even without being able to follow her, the level of enthusiasm that she had and the connection she was making with the kids was palpable. You could see it in her face and in the kids’ faces. There was just a great energy in the room. That chess could be so interesting to a non-chess person really surprised me and I thought, “Well, if it could be interesting to me, maybe we could find a way to make it interesting to other people.”