Chess team members from the documentary "Brooklyn Castle." (Producers Distribution…)
The documentary “Brooklyn Castle,” now playing in Los Angeles, closely follows five students on the chess team at Brooklyn’s I.S. 138. The highest ranked junior high team in the nation, they actually won the national high school championship just this past April.
After first hearing of the team, director Katie Dellamaggiore was surprised to discover the school was just minutes from her apartment in Brooklyn. The film follows the team from April 2009 to May/June 2010, over the course of one calendar year but across two school years. The students she sticks with range from a girl hoping to become the first African American female to attain the level of chess master to one of the lowest ranked players on the team who just strives to improve his own skills. Elizabeth Vicary, the school’s intense, charismatic chess teacher, transforms chess moves into life lessons.
Infectious and uplifting, the film won audience prizes at the South by Southwest and Hot Docs film festivals. For anyone who might think this is just another youth competition doc along the lines of “Spellbound” or “Mad Hot Ballroom,” Dellamaggiore sees it as something else.
“The chess was a nice vehicle to get to know the kids and get to know their stories and to see how chess was impacting their lives, but by no means was it about whether they were winning or losing the chess games,” Dellamaggiore, who makes her feature directing debut with the film, said during a recent call from Brooklyn. “At the same time, chess is really interesting to me as a non-chess player and I did want to give people a sense of what made chess special.”
Also setting it apart from more typical competition films is how “Brooklyn Castle” follows the struggles of the school to grapple with budget cuts as the team works to maintain its very right to compete. As Dellamaggiore was preparing to shoot, the school’s assistant principal, John Galvin, warned her of impending cuts and noted that the team may not be able to travel to bigger tournaments.
“If we were just making a competition doc it would have been a problem,” said Dellamaggiore. “If you don’t get any of the competitions you don’t have a competition doc. Really the film was about the team and the kids and if they don’t get to go on their trips that would be part of the story.”
As well, Galvin inadvertently led Dellamaggiore to one of the film’s bigger themes.
“He said, ‘I always tell the kids that for every difficult position on the chessboard they have to find the best solution, the most creative solution to the problem, so it wouldn’t be right for me to not find the most creative solution to this problem,’ ” she recalled.
“He was already making those connections for us,” she said of the bigger picture for chess in the lives of the students. “I was hoping I would find that things happening on the chess board were mirroring life in some way, that what you learn through chess are also things that you can apply to life. And it was really happening.”
The film is being released by the Producers Distribution Agency, the same company that previously had successes with “Senna” and “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” and could be an outside contender for various year-end awards competitions. And, rather than having a big festival moment of selling to a bigger distributor, Dellamaggiore had the unexpected bump of selling the film’s remake rights to producer Scott Rudin, who came calling even before the film had premiered.
“That was something that really did come as a surprise,” Dellamaggiore said. “We did not seek that out, they found us.”
In another unusual move, the Brooklyn Castle team is offering free tickets to public school teachers. There's more information at the film's website.
Indie Focus: Gender dynamics of 'The Loneliest Planet'
'Paperboy' director Lee Daniels says his movie is 'kind of deep'
Indie Focus: Andrea Arnold's bold moves in 'Wuthering Heights'
Follow Mark Olsen on Twitter: @IndieFocus