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."
For schools or communities looking to build a thriving program like this, what's the most important first step they can take?
I think the emphasis on afterschool and enrichment activities during the school day and after the school day at I.S. 318 is an excellent example for other schools to follow. Afterschool programs at I.S. 318 are not seen as "extras," but as a critical to educating the whole child. I.S. 318's late principal, Mr. Rubino, would hire teachers that also had a special talent they could channel into an afterschool program, like music, art, guitar or dance.
[...]There's this kind of seamlessness to the school day, where a student can take a chess class during the day and then also be part of the chess team after school. And the kids are happy to be at school and to stay at school past 3 p.m., because they know they are going to get to participate in the activity that they've chosen, and that they're starting to build a passion for.
So, do you play chess now?
I wasn’t a chess player before we made the film and I still don’t consider myself a chess player after finishing the film, either. But I did learn the fundamentals of the game, which is much more than I had when I started. I think I was under the delusion that I was actually learning some strategy by spending so much time in the classroom, but my husband still enjoys kicking my butt every opportunity he gets. And I’m proud to say I finally got the nerve to play my first game against one of the kids last weekend. It was against [I.S. 318 team member] Pobo, and he said I actually didn’t play so bad — so I’m pretty proud of that!
I.S. 318 is such a strong, localized program, but a lot of the members go off to different high schools. Is there one area high school with a particularly good program that a lot of them tend to feed into?
Yes, there is definitely one high school in particular that many of the I.S. 318 chess players choose to attend and that’s Edward R. Murrow High School, which has one of the best high school chess teams in the country. For those I.S. 318 chess team members that choose to go to high schools that don’t have strong chess programs but want to continue playing competitive chess, they have the opportunity to compete in open tournaments all around the city practically every weekend.
As a Brooklyn-based independent filmmaker/producer, were there any particular local resources that helped you get off the ground?
I love that there's such a strong network of documentary filmmakers in New York City, as well as organizations that support the development and production of documentaries.The very first grant that we received was from Chicken and Egg pictures, a film fund and non-profit production company dedicated to supporting women filmmakers. But even beyond the cash grant, Chicken and Egg provided invaluable one on one mentoring time, an outreach residency and an editing master class — all of which helped to shape the film we're so proud to be releasing.
We also participated in IFP’s Independent Film Week, which takes place every September in New York City. Independent Film Week brings the international film community together to advance new voices and projects on the independent scene. The event connected us to financiers, executives and decision-makers that we might not otherwise have had the chance to meet. So, in my opinion, just having the opportunity to create and nurture these kinds of professional relationships is really the most invaluable resource available in New York City.
Things are financially precarious when the film leaves off. Any idea what the status of the team's funding and the school's budget is these days?
Right now, the chess team has zero dollars allocated for travel. Their main source of funding these days comes from private donations. We're committed to leveraging the film as a fundraiser for the school and will continue to do so until I.S. 318 has enough money to travel to all their chess tournaments. But this kind of piecemeal funding is, of course, unreliable and only a short-term solution. The big question is how the program will continue to sustain itself over the next five, 10 or 15 years? And I think that’s a solution that’s going to have to come from a change in the funding system for afterschool programs at a city, state or national level.
Brooklyn Castle opens today in select theaters.
Follow Virginia K. Smith on Twitter @vksmith.