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by Kate Gellene
July 19th, 2012

Katie Dellamaggiore’s debut feature Brooklyn Castle tells the extraordinary story of New York City middle school I.S. 318, home of the nation’s most successful student chess team. Though 70% of the school’s students come from low income families, most of their player rankings would beat out Albert Einstein. Katie spent over a year with the kids, documenting their hard work, their challenges and their success. Rooftop recently had a chat with her about her experiences making the film, her inspiration, and exciting plans for the future.

Brooklyn Castle screens this Saturday, July 21 at The Old American Can Factory in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Students from the film will be in attendance throughout the night, and will lead a few exciting rounds of fast-paced chess prior to the screening (as well as some more casual games). Tickets are going fast, so get yours today!

Rooftop Films: Brooklyn Castle spans almost two years in the lives of the student chess team of Brooklyn middle school I.S. 318. Though their success has earned them the unofficial title as the “Yankees of chess”, the success of a student chess team is still under the radar for most. How did you come to discover them? Were they receptive to your crew bringing cameras into the schools and tournaments?

Katie Dellamaggiore: The idea for the film came from a 2007 New York Times article I read about Shawn Martinez, a talented chess player at Murrow High School in Midwood, Brooklyn, a neighborhood just a few minutes from where I grew up.  At the time, Murrow was the best high school chess team in the nation (and arguably they still are!). They were even featured in a new book by writer Michael Weinreb called The Kings of New York: A Year Among the Geeks, Oddballs, and Genuises Who Make Up America’s Top High School Chess Team. I had always been interested in making a film about Brooklyn, but I wanted to tell a story that people didn’t expect, and this seemed to fit the bill.

I did some digging and found out that the feeder junior high school to Murrow was I.S. 318 and that not only had I.S. 318 won more national chess championships than any junior high school ever, but they were basically breaking down all the tired, negative stereotypes associated with inner city public schools.  I.S. 318 is only minutes from where we live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, so I went there one day to meet the team. My gut immediately told me that something very special was definitely happening in Ms. Vicary’s chess classroom, and that I had better move quickly and figure out how to make my first feature – because this was a story I shouldn’t pass up. Luckily the school administration welcomed us with open arms and they were 100% on board with our idea to make a film about their chess team.

RF: The kids in this film have an exceptional knowledge of chess, a very complex game that requires a lot of technical knowledge. Were you yourself a chess player going into the project? Did you have the opportunity to learn the game from the students and their coaches?


KD: I wasn’t a chess player before we made the film and I’m still not 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.

RF: Early in the film, one of the school’s chess coaches introduces the concept of teaching to the “whole child”, and it seems that you took the same approach to your film. The story goes beyond the challenges facing a chess player, highlighting their personalities, family lives, and educational goals. The kids are also very open and honest, sometimes in the face of disappointment. Was it difficult to get the students to work with you, as compared with adult subjects?


KD: We knew from the get go that we really wanted to showcase the young people in the film as three dimensional characters, each with their own unique set of challenges and goals that went far beyond winning or losing on the chessboard. It was equally important for us to show off the beauty and complexity of chess, but not by just showing the kids playing lots of and lots of chess (which they did!) but rather by finding out how chess intersected with life in interesting ways.

The kids that we chose to follow were each open and honest, but very much in their own way, which I think is important to note. Someone like Pobo, he had no problem sharing lots about himself right from the beginning. But then Justus is just a naturally more quiet, kind of low-key kid. So although he wasn’t an open book right off the bat like Pobo, I think he opened up to us in exactly the way you see him opening up in the film, very slowly and very carefully, but with no less emotion than Pobo, just in a different way. I’ve worked on a quite a few television and film projects with young people, so I feel pretty comfortable working with young people – and actually sometimes prefer it. Young people are so much less guarded and self conscious than adults and they really do surprise in ways you can never expect.

RF: The group of students that you focused on (as well as all the others in New York City) have to face a challenge beyond just planning for college. Their college prep begins at a very young age as a result of the specialized high school program in the city. Those in the film are incredibly self-motivated towards this goal at such a young age, one that most American students don’t have to face for a few more years. Knowing the challenges one has to face beyond high school, what do you think of the extraordinary pressure these kids face at ages 12 and 13?


KD: This was a constant conversation we had after shooting with these extraordinary kids and families.  We were always reflecting on being that age and how our minds were 180 degrees in another direction. The amount of focus and discipline they had on and off the chessboard is more than impressive, it’s inspiring. That being said they were still kids concerned with kid things, and this kind of “pressure” balance is proof that being self-motivated, successful and smart can be very cool and nothing to be embarrassed or shy about.

RF: I.S. 318 represents the remarkable highs and lows facing the education system: while over 70% of its students live below the poverty line, they have also experienced extraordinary success with the chess team and beyond. Your film really displays the role that after school programs play in their success. Was this an issue that you were aware of going into the project? Has your experience with I.S. 318 changed your views on education?


KD: We actually didn’t go into making this film thinking about the effects of education budget cuts on afterschool programs.  We started out just wanting to follow the chess team, but early into the process, the Assistant Principal John Galvin was concerned that maybe we wouldn’t want to film anymore because the school was hit massive budget cuts.  Of course, as filmmakers we saw a great conflict and an important, timely story that we thought needed to be told. Since then we’ve been lucky to form a great partnership with the Afterschool Alliance and through that partnership we’ve been learning more and more about the great need for afterschool programs in our public schools. The studies that have been conducted are off the charts about what these programs do for kids.  It’s no longer a question, but a fact that kids excel when they’re given the opportunity to explore their potential through expanded learning opportunities after 3pm. Looking specifically at chess at 318, there was one thing Coach Elizabeth Vicary said that really stuck with us and that was the idea that chess offers kids an opportunity to understand what it takes to get really good at something if they work hard at it. Luckily for the kids that join the chess club at 318 they are having so much fun while they’re learning that staying at school for two extra hours every day isn’t a chore it’s a treat.

RF: You have also experiences great success with this film, an Audience Award winner at SXSW and Best New Director at the Brooklyn Film Festival. What are your future plans for the film? Do you have any other projects on the horizon? 


KD: The film has found a great home with PDA (Exit Through the Gift Shop, Senna, The Way) for a theatrical run in the fall.  We’re really excited and looking forward to being part of a distribution model that places a big priority on grassroots outreach and encourages us as the filmmakers to be so involved in all aspects of the release.  As far as other projects, to be honest, right now we are extremely busy getting this one done, but that said we have a bunch of ideas floating around that we want to start researching further once Brooklyn Castle gets out into the world.

RF: How can we, as an audience, help support the film and its subjects?


KD: There’s a Take Action portion of our website (brooklyncastle.com/takeaction) where you can do all sorts of stuff that we hope will help make difference.  Pobo has a petition you can sign to tell congress to stop cutting school budgets.  You can also support other afterschool programs, learn how to start a chess club and even donate directly to 318’s club.

RF: We’re very excited that the kids from Brooklyn Castle, as well as some new faces from Chess-In-The-Schools, will be showing off their skills at the screening on July 21st! Have you had a chance to keep up with them since filming?

KD: We see the kids all the time and follow them on facebook and twitter.  We’ve brought all the main subjects to as many festivals as we can because everyone wants to meet them after seeing the movie; especially the chess players.  The kids love talking strategy with chess players in the audience and of course the chess players want to see if they have what it takes to beat the kids of I.S. 318.


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Rooftop Films is a New York based non-profit whose mission is to engage diverse communities by showing independent movies in outdoor locations, producing new films, coordinating youth media education, and renting equipment at low cost to artists.

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