Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Brooklyn Castle

Oh what a lovely movie!  If you can score a ticket to the one Hot Docs viewing left of this movie - do it!

Brooklyn Castle is everything you want in a documentary.  It's a heartwarming story about a remarkable group of kids at a remarkable school IS 318 in Brooklyn.  Huge trophies and banners decorate the halls of this school.  Are they sports banners?  No.  At this school, they play chess.  And do they ever play chess!   A week ago this middle school just won the US Chess Federation National High School championships - first middle school ever to achieve such a feat.  Who'd have thought chess could be so hip?

IS 318 is a middle school in Brooklyn, serving a population which is 60% below the poverty line.  It is blessed with dedicated teachers and administration which drive the school's passion for chess, teaching the kids life lessons as they learn the moves of chess.  In the movie we meet the heroes of IS 318, the hip nerds and they are an amazing cast of characters:

11-year-old Justus Williams is the youngest black chess master ever.  (He achieved that status after the movie).  He commutes to IS 318, attracted by the exceptional chess program.  In the movie, we see this shy thoughtful kid fighting his jitters in the big tournaments.  You get the sense that these jitters are going to be his biggest obstacle to future success.  He is getting specialized tutoring from volunteer chess masters in New York.

13-year-old Rochelle Ballantyne's goal is to be the first ever female African-American chess master.  She's already reached Expert, one level below master.  By winning the girls championship at the 2011 middle school championship, she earned a full-ride scholarship to University of Texas, even though she's just begun high school at Brooklyn Tech.  She is struggling with priorities: her parents are determined that she should put her schoolwork first.  Meanwhile, the chess masters who have volunteered to tutor her demand at least one hour a day of practice.  It's hard to juggle all those demands.


Patrick suffers from ADHD.  Extremely self-aware, he recognizes chess is helping him develop his ability to focus.  We cheer for him in the movie when, after a rocky start at the tournament, he pulls off some final wins, to leave the tournament feeling satisfied.  The audience asked why the producers picked Patrick to be featured in the movie, as he wasn't slated to win a championship.  They said that from the minute they entered the school, Patrick was on their heels asking questions about the filming process.  He was just too engaging to leave out.

Pobo is the son  of a widowed mother from Nigeria.   We see him dwarfing the children in her day care as he keeps them amused with a story.  But he's at his best with the chess team.  A relentless cheerleader, he is always there for the other players, encouraging them win or lose, clutching them in big bear hugs.   When his smiling face hit the screen, you could feel the whole theatre smiling back.  We ached with him as he awaited the results of the election for school president - undoubtedly hamming up his anxiety for the camera!  Unsurprisingly, this charismatic character won.  The producers told us he still comes back to IS 318 on weekends to tutor younger kids in chess, even though he is now at high school, playing centre on the basketball team. 

Alexis is totally driven to succeed in life, to get educated, get a good job, and provide money for his immigrant family.  He is a totally intense player, unable to sit still as he faces the board.  Even more than chess, he is consumed with the desire to excel on the do-or-die exam that will determine whether he is accepted at a 'choice' school.  Getting into one of these good high schools

And who are the people that make this all happen?

Elizabeth Vicary
Vicary is an expert-level player (notice that Justus has already surpassed her) who turned IS 318 into the powerhouse of chess that it is.  We see her high-energy style as she coaches the team and teaches chess classes.  Chess is mandatory for everyone in Grade Six and optional for  Grades Seven and Eight.  Some vignettes of her one-on-ones with students show her instilling life lessons along with chess lessons.  She is a force of nature.  Catch her blog if you want to read more about these students.

John Galvin
Vice Principal Galvin, a 17-year veteran of IS 318, is the coach of the team, fighting for money to support the team's travel to tournaments and other costs associated with running the program.  Threatened with extinction by the harsh budget cuts, Galvin has fought back with political pressure, solicitation of sponsors, walkathons.  The movie's web site has a call to action to support after-school programs in America's deepening cuts to education.

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