Interview: Katie Dellamaggiore (Writer/Director – ‘Brooklyn Castle)

Brooklyn, New York’s Intermediate School 318 is a testament to the transformational powers of chess, quality afterschool programming, and a dedicated staff. The school’s chess program began as a loose gathering of chess enthusiasts – the “Chess Nuts,” as they called themselves – in the early ‘90s. Elizabeth Vicary, then working for nonprofit Chess-in-the-Schools, arrived at I.S. 318 in 1999 to coach a team of just 10 kids who’d never before competed in a tournament. By the end of her first year, the school had a National title and a reason to be excited about chess. The program expanded exponentially over the following years, and today I.S. 318 boasts a team of nearly 100 students and a display case showcasing a staggering number of chess trophies. The school currently holds more National chess titles than any other junior high school in the country; offers 45 afterschool programs in subjects as diverse as robotics, botany and tennis; and is one of New York City’s most successful schools.

BROOKLYN CASTLE‘ tells the stories of five members of the chess team at a below-the-poverty-line inner city junior high school that has won more national championships than any other in the country. The film follows the challenges these kids face in their personal lives as well as on the chessboard, and is as much about the sting of their losses as it is about the anticipation of their victories. Ironically, the biggest obstacle thrust upon them arises not from other competitors but from recessionary budget cuts to all the extracurricular activities at their school. ‘BROOKLYN CASTLE‘ shows how these kids’ dedication to chess magnifies their belief in what is possible for their lives. After all, if they can master the world’s most difficult game, what can’t they do?

Buy or Rent ‘Brooklyn Castle’ on iTunes presented by FilmBuffHERE

I am sure you have been asked this question before, but how did you first hear about IS 318?
I grew up in Brooklyn near Sheepshead Bay.  I was reading an article in the New York Times about a talented chess player at Murrow High School, which is not far from where I grew up.  I knew of the high school but had no idea about the renown of the chess team.  Having always been interested in telling a Brooklyn story this article peeked my interest immediately.  After a little digging I discovered IS 318, which is a feeder school to Murrow.

IS 318 had won more national chess championships than any school anywhere, so they were even more accomplished than the high school.  On top of that IS 318 is a title 1 school, meaning they have a high percentage of students living below the poverty level.  These two things combined made it very clear that IS 318 was the school I would want to follow.

The school is also located in Williamsburg, which is where I live now.  It was very accessible for me to go over and meet with administrators and students.  The first day I got there I was like “woah!“.  There was something very special going on there.  There are tons of banners and trophies lining the walls.

So the celebration of the team is prevalent in the school?
Yes.  That is what hooked me in.  It was this untold story of a chess team being the heroes of the school.  I immediately knew it was a story that people would enjoy hearing about.

Are the demographics of Murrow High School similar to IS 318 with equatable levels of poverty amongst the student body?
As far as I know, it is not a title 1 school.  We did not get too deep into researching the details of that school.  They had a book written about them called The Kings of New York by Michael Weinreb, who also writes for the New York Times.  When the Times articles came out it was in conjunction with the book.  The book is great.  Michael spent a year with the high school chess team.  This is where the idea of embedding myself with the junior high school chess team came from.

What was the reaction from the school and student body when initially presenting them with the idea for ‘Brooklyn Castle’?
That’s a really good question because, initially, I was expecting some hesitation on behalf of the administrators.  I spoke to the principal, Mr. Rubino, who was so proud of the chess team and wanted to share their success.  We had the administrations approval and support from the get go.  Same thing goes for the teachers, the kids and  the parents.  The parents were so proud of what their kids were achieving that when I went to their homes they opened them up to us completely.

Growing up in Connecticut, we had academically gifted programs throughout our education system, where students were recognized early on and put into specific classes or even schools within schools.  This was positive in that it allowed students to learn at the level they were capable of, as well as interact with intellectual equals, but it also tended too breed the over bearing parent.  You talk about the openness of the parents at IS 318, but did you encounter any overbearance from them, especially after understanding the scope of their child’s intellectual abilities?
Not in the students that I followed, but I cannot say that is the case for everyone.  Don’t get me wrong, as you travel to different tournaments you do find these parents, but with IS 318 a lot of the parents are working class.  Many of them work 2 or 3 jobs so they have many other things to concern themselves with than chess rating.  I spoke to John Galvin, the coach, about this and he said that they have the kind of team that has 2 chaperones for 50 students.  What the parents lack in financial support they more than make up for in enthusiasm, moral support and positive reinforcement.  In some ways it is preferred when the parents are not there because it hinders on the students asserting the full extent of their independence while traveling.  In a strange way it works out.

In this way the students are able to deal with a loss in a way that is self realizing…
Exactly.  Every time a child loses a match there is not a parent running over to them acting as a shoulder to cry on.  Instead they sit down with John and analyze why they lost.  There is no over coddling.

Tying in with this, what is the common motivation amongst the students to succeed?  Each individual student expresses there own respective reason, but did you notice a common theme amongst their motivations?
I think there is something really nice about winning and being the best at something.  It makes you very confident, especially at an age where one is searching for the things they are good at.  Once they find something then they will naturally gravitate toward it, ultimately giving them confidence.  Also, since chess is frequently looked at as a “smart person” activity, if you master it then you can master anything.

I am sure that the communal aspect of the teams structure helps too…
The social aspect is huge.

I am sure that every school is different, unfortunately a wide spread anti-intellectual mentality is prevalent amongst schools of all descriptions.  Again, going back to my own experiences, the lacrosse players had a MUCH easier time in that environment than the debate team, for example.
We wanted to show that being smart is cool, but I think the anti intellectual mentality is changing slowly.

Many of the people that are striving in this era of technological hyper evolution are those who a generation ago may have been stigmatized for their intelligence.  Now they are changing cultural landscapes, as well as feelings towards intelligence.

I am also interested in the travel aspect of the competition.  If for nothing else, regardless of win or lose, the team allows the students to pick up and get out of Brooklyn from time to time and experiences other places.  Do the people involved with the chess team acknowledge the importance of travel, simply as an act?
John Galvin and Elizabeth provide an equal balance of chess and non-chess.  The students are competing but John sees it as his job that the students are growing outside of the chess board.  He definitely recognizes the importance of traveling and the social element.  For these students especially, most have never been on an airplane so the opportunity to go to Texas is huge.  It is great to travel to the super nationals in Tennessee and compete in chess, but it is also great to see Tennessee!

So what is the current state of the program?
It is pretty grim.  They are still in need of money, but luckily we have been able to get them some more exposure.  They have managed to raise a significant amount  which can be used for all the tournament travel this year.  The problem is next year.  Already there is a fight happening at city hall.  At the same time every year the city budget is released which always affects the education budget, so this fight happens all the time and is happening right now.  In fact, Pobo was at City Hall last week, on a panel with Stephen Levin (Councilman for IS 318 district) speaking about how after school programs should not be cut.  I would like to say that people have realized the importance of after school programs but that has not happened quite yet.

The school is getting a good amount of personal donations, so that is encouraging.  John Galvin recently told me that he got an anonymous donation of $5,000.

I am curious, what is the justification argument in cutting programs which are proven to stimulate intellectual growth? Is there ever a justification?
They do not think that these programs are not wonderful.  There just is no where else to cut.  You cannot cut English or Math.  You cannot cut teachers salaries any further so naturally it is the enrichment programs that are the first to go, regardless of their ultimate benefit.

Back on the filmmaking side of things, this week is South by Southwest Festival where ‘Brooklyn Castle’ premiered in 2012.  Obviously the reaction was positive, but how did that initial reaction prepare you for the next year in taking the film out on the road?
It’s interesting because we thought ‘Brooklyn Castle‘ should premier in New York.  When that didn’t happen we got invited to SXSW, which was such an honor.  It was interesting to premier in Texas and see the overwhelmingly positive reaction because it told us we did not just make a New York story.  We realized that the message would be appreciated universally.

After SXSW we went to 6 or 7 other film festivals around the country before we premiered in New York.  In June we landed at the Brooklyn Film Festival, which was nice to have a homecoming there.  From the reaction around the country it proved the film had legs.  When it came to do our theatrical release we knew that their would be several markets where people would identify with the story.  I think if we would have done it in the reverse and premiered in New York, maybe we would not have had that experience.

Now you have online distribution with iTunes and VOD through FilmBuff.  Was this digital plan for distribution always in your marketing strategy or was it a result of necessity?
There is something special about releasing your film in theaters.  These days, though, fewer people are watching movies in theaters.  Even big time blockbusters have a lower turnout than they used to so you can imagine how difficult it is to get people out on a Friday night to an independent documentary.  It was great that we did our theatrical run in that it was a success, leading into some great reviews from critics which led to appearances on The Daily Show and other news outlets.  I don’t know if they would have done that if we had just done a digital release. I don’t think that the majority of people consume independent films though.  The most are going to see this film on iTunes, Amazon, Google or Netflix.

The company we partnered with for the theatrical release, PDA, is a sister company with FilmBuff so we always knew that they would come in and work on the digital.  Then the third piece of the puzzle is the educational component and television. I am thrilled that the film will be on PBS in the fall.

To wrap up, while talking with the students specifically about the game of chess itself, was there any one comment or description that you heard which has stuck with you?
Pobo told me that chess requires a tremendous amount of patience.  He said that this has carried over to all aspects of his life.  Leave it to a 13 year old but he told me “I can sit and wait for the subway all day without getting impatient”.  You can tell from the film that Pobo has a lot of energy so he appreciates that chess has slowed him down and concentrate.  He said that chess has taught him how to just sit.

Interview Conducted & Transcribed by Steve Rickinson
: @Brooklyn_Castle













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