by Carolyn Arnold, MBA’13
It seems like an unlikely tale: a belowthe- poverty-line inner city middle school in Brooklyn, New York, has won more national chess championships than any other school in the nation. Sound intriguing? It’s all revealed in the critically acclaimed Brooklyn Castle, a documentary directed by Katie Dellamaggiore ’00 through her production company, Rescue Media.
As a fellow Brooklyn native, Dellamaggiore was both surprised and proud when she heard that Brooklyn’s intermediate school I.S. 318 had the top number of chess championships. She had been looking for a compelling story for her new production company to undertake and when she discovered the school she jumped at the chance to meet them.
“That’s what caught my attention,” Dellamaggiore said. “I’m from Brooklyn and I had no idea that we were home to the best scholastic public school chess players. When you think of highachieving chess players, you think of a private school or suburban school. But the best are from a school in Brooklyn that has a high percentage of poverty.”
Dellamaggiore wanted people to know that I.S. 318 was defying expectations and was eager to tell their story in the best way she knew how – through film.
For her, documentaries are the best way to communicate real people’s stories. As a student at Fairfield, she soon found a way to develop her interest. “I knew I was interested in communication but wasn’t sure where that would lead — print, television, corporate communication, or public relations. Fairfield had all of that and it was close enough to the city so I could do an internship,” Dellamaggiore said. While a student, the communication major — who also had minors in film and Spanish — took part in Ham Channel productions and worked with the equipment available from the Media Center to put together short films. Rev. James Mayzik, S.J., associate professor of film, television, and media arts and director of the Media Center, was a huge influence on her work. “He put so much passion and commitment into that program and without him I don’t think it would exist,” she said.
One memorable assignment Dellamaggiore had was to put together short stories on seniors who were reflecting on their upcoming graduation. “I remember showing it to them after we edited it and they were emotional and tearing up,” she recalled. “When that happened I thought to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, I did that.’ I couldn’t believe that something that I made was affecting people so much. And that’s where I got my taste for documentaries.”
After spending several years working at MTV (where she had also interned while a student) she decided to focus her energy on documentaries. “I really enjoyed working at MTV. There was lots of hands-on production work and it was fun, but more entertainment focused,” she said. “I was craving the long-form, deep storytelling experience so I began working with filmmakers on their projects.” Once she made the switch, Dellamaggiore worked on well-reviewed films such as To Die in Jerusalem, 39 Pounds of Love, and American Teen.
When she decided she wanted to tell the story of the chess club, Dellamaggiore reached out to the administration at I.S. 318 and received permission to interview students, teachers, and families; travel with the team; and basically follow the life of the school and its students. She and her production team, which consisted of her husband and business partner, Nelson (editor and producer) and her brother Brian Schultz (director of photography and producer), spent a year and a half filming and another year and a half editing. In that time, her team spent hours talking to the students and teachers, learning about their backgrounds, goals, and struggles. Another Fairfield alumnus, Neal Flaherty ’00 was a co-executive producer of the film.
Brooklyn Castle focuses on the stories of five compelling students with very different ambitions. Alexis is a diligent student focused on a highly selective special placement test that will allow him to go to a better high school; Justus, a young and gifted chess player is set on becoming a chess master, but is plagued by nerves; Rochelle is the number-one chess player at her school and on track to become the first African American female chess master; Patrick is trying to overcome his ADHD and do better in both chess and school; and Pobo, the charismatic leader of the team who runs for school president. Throughout the film, the students tackle obstacles that test their mettle and challenge them to problem-solve.
Dellamaggiore and her team discovered that being in the chess club helped students realize they could think through their problems and come up with solutions, just like in a chess game.
In addition to the students’ personal challenges, the school itself struggled through major issues in the form of budget cuts that drastically affected the chess team’s travel budget (each major tournament is held at a different location around the country). When the cuts came, the documentary details how the teachers, administration, and families of the school come together to support their students and find solutions to the school’s budget woes.
Elizabeth Vicary, the chess teacher and team coach, works tirelessly with her students to guide them to become better thinkers and chess players. John Galvin, the assistant principal and chess coordinator, begins a community-wide campaign to fight the budget cuts and find additional sources of funding. And the school’s principal, Fred Rubino, demonstrates again and again how important after-school programs are for students to succeed.
In just the first few minutes of the documentary viewers become invested in the hard work the students put in and empathize with them for every won or lost chess tournament. As the film progresses, the value that the extracurricular activity has provided to the students is clear. Dellamaggiore said that the students learned that for every problem there is a solution and that if they are patient and think through the steps they will find answers. “That’s what I think chess does for them,” she said. “It gives them a way to be more self-reflective, and I think that’s not always there in regular courses.”
That last point is what Dellamaggiore hopes viewers take away from Brooklyn Castle. “What we want to do with this film, aside from it being successful as a film,” she said, “is to make it more difficult for afterschool programing to be cut. For students to succeed we need to invest in them. At this school, chess is one of those investments that needs to be kept.”
So far, Brooklyn Castle has made a significant splash in the documentary world. The film premiered in October at select theaters in New York and went on to 50 other cities. Now it is available on iTunes and video and movies on Demand. In the fall, it will be shown on PBS’s POV (Point of View), a prestigious platform for documentary films. Press for the film has also been positive. Jon Stewart even invited Dellamaggiore and Pobo onto The Daily Show. “That kind of press was great for us,” she said. “And Jon Stewart is Pobo’s idol!”
Dellamaggiore and her husband have taken some time off after Brooklyn Castle to start a family. In January, they welcomed their daughter Leela Jane into the world. Dellamaggiore is also starting to research ideas for her next project, a documentary about a rescue shelter. The shelter, The Brooklyn Animal Rescue Coalition (BARC), is where Dellamaggiore and her husband adopted their own dog and was also part of the inspiration for the name of her production company, Rescue Media.
For those still to watch Brooklyn Castle to find out if Rochelle does indeed become the first African American chess master, or if Pobo becomes school president, or Alexis does well enough at his test to go to his number-one high school, Dellamaggiore said that she hopes viewers also are inspired to act. “Making this film helped us discover how important after-school programs are for kids — especially kids who go to a Title One school who might not have access to those programs on their own,” she said. “I would love for viewers to take active steps to help I.S. 318, or even a school in their community, in some way.”
For more information about where to see the film and ways to take action, visit www.brooklyncastle.com.