Katie Dellamaggiore ’00 directs Brooklyn Castle, a documentary following the triumphant path of champion chess students at an inner-city school.

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.

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