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Brooklyn Castle was extremely well-received at its World Premiere at
Austin's SXSW Film Festival. This film shows how students who are often
written off as low achievers can be inspired and empowered to succeed.
I.S. 318 in Brooklyn has been building teams that win national chess
championships and by doing so empowering students to learn and to
succeed against very long odds. This inspiring film focuses in on a few
students and shows their struggles and their successes. These students
take us into their lives and show us how chess has changed them and
given them opportunities that they never knew existed before. Chess
provides them an avenue to success where they can go as far as their
minds can take them. The film is powerful antidote to all of the
negative attacks that we hear about teachers and public education (in
films such as "Waiting for Superman" which placed the blame for
educational problems on the Teachers Unions). This shows that students
succeed when they are empowered by excellent teachers. One creative
aspect of this school is that chess is offered to the students as an
elective course instead of just an extra-curricular activity.
Despite all of their successes they face even greater challenges from budget cuts that threaten their opportunities to travel to tournaments and compete. Education and the opportunity to achieve should be a right of all American students, not a privilege of the well-to-do. This film should be widely viewed by all those here in Texas and around the country that are seeking to balance budgets on the backs of American schoolchildren. We need to invest in the minds of our children if we expect them to be able to compete in a global economy. Chess is an excellent avenue that can be used to grow young minds. Bravo to I.S. 318 and to the filmmakers of Brooklyn Castle who have shown us the successes being achieved at one school. This film needs to be widely viewed by the general public and most especially by our educators and our political leaders.
Brooklyn Castle takes a fascinating look at the success of I318 School
in Brooklyn - a middle school that has consistently produced chess
It asks how and why and also looks at the wider general issue of how funding is slashing such programs. As with any documentary connecting with both the subject and its protagonists is vital - and here that works - 12 years olds are notorious for being either extrovert to the point of annoying or introvert to the point of silence - but here the balance is just the right side of cool - and it's easy to be swept up in the tales.
It works best when showing the tournaments and the chess, and really while the parents' interviews are OK they're not adding to the tale that much. BC is slightly long and more editing would have helped a lot - at times your attention wanders, but it is saved by a very strong story.
In addition, there are moments which are wholly captivating - and lift the film - this is a film which does inspire, and makes us believe that great teachers and good teaching can give kids who are otherwise likely to be forgotten a real chance in life.
Fantastic, inspirational, warm-hearted true story--a can't miss
documentary. Goes on a little longer than it probably should, but
watching the improbable story unfold is unquestionably captivating.
"Brooklyn Castle" is a documentary about I.S. 318 - an inner-city school where more than 65 percent of students are from homes with incomes below the federal poverty level - that also happens to have the best junior high school chess team in the country. Chess has transformed the school from "school in need of improvement" in 2003, to one of New York City's best. But a series of recession-driven pubic school budget cuts now threaten to undermine those hard-won successes.
The second act of the film loses its sense of direction, but finds its footing again in the third act when the focus is on the kids and the intense competition of the tournaments. If you feel that the country's educational system is in a perpetual downward spiral, and no one really cares, be sure to give it a watch. It's sure to give you at least some hope for our nation's future.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The New York Yankees have won 27 World Series and at the time of the
filming of this documentary Intermediate (Junior High) School 318, in
Brooklyn, N.Y., had won 26 National Chess Titles. So it's natural for
Asst. Principal John Galvin to declare that his chess team are the
Yankees of chess, as everyone wants to beat them. It's rather amazing
to see the halls of the school lined with plaques, photos, trophies,
and banners of the school's chess accomplishments.
The film follows the usual pattern of this type of documentary by highlighting a few individuals and following them not only in their chess matches, but illustrates how their families support them and how the students must try and balance their academics and other interests with their chess playing.
To just highlight one of those inspiring stories, I'll write about Rochelle Ballantyne, who when the documentary began was an 8th grader at I.S. 318. She was 13 years old but already exhibiting great natural skills and abilities in chess. She talked about her disappointment at seeing so few females trying out for the team but did not let that deter her.
Rochelle's mother was constantly stressing her grades and education as a priority, so Rochelle was trying hard to balance the two, while continuing her goal of becoming the first female African American master level chess player ever. Towards the end of the documentary, Rochelles enters the Girl's National Chess Tournament which has a top prize of a full scholarship to the University of Texas.
It was also inspiring to see the dedication of the I.S. 318 staff in helping the students. The aforementioned Asst Principal John Galvin as well as Elizabeth Vicary (Chess Teacher/Coach) were very hands on and helpful in motivating the team members. They, along with Principal Fred Rubino (who unfortunately passed away last year) tried to rally the students and parents to fight back against crippling budget cuts which would greatly restrict extra-curricular programs like chess and marching band. At the time of the Great Recession, they organized successful E-mail campaigns as well as raising tens of thousands of dollars through Walk-A-Thons and other campaigns.
In summary, I found this documentary, directed by Katie Dellamaggiore, to be quite an engaging and fascinating film. There are some technical chess terms mentioned in the movie, but I would venture to say that it would not hamper any non-players from enjoying it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I enjoy all kinds of documentaries about school age kids and how they
can pull themselves above their family situations through talent,
perseverance and hard work. Here we look at a Brooklyn public school,
Intermediate School (I.S.) 318, where about 2/3 of the students are
from families living at or below the poverty level. Many are first
generation Americans. But the great thing is they don't know what their
limitations might be, they are able to dream and succeed regardless of
where their parents are on the social or economic ladder.
The documentary covers the years 2008 through 2012, and has to deal with the reduced budgets resulting from the economic downturn of 2009 and following years. At I.S 318 is a fine chess program for students, in fact the school has won over 20 national championships, the most of any I.S. in the country. The documentary follows the team and several of its members, with snippets from their school life and their home life.
Back in the early 1970s when Bobby Fischer was winning the world chess championship I, like many other Americans, became keenly interested in chess. In fact I can recall playing chess with co-workers almost every day at lunch for a few weeks, and I learned enough to know how difficult it is to play well. These kids at I.S 318 are remarkable, in that they accept the discipline and hard work necessary to get there. They may not make a living at it but mastering chess sets them up to master almost anything they choose to follow in life.
My favorite was Rochelle , a young black girl who was the top player at I.S. 318 when she left that school after the 8th grade. She set a goal to become the first female Chess Master of her ethnic origin, and while she hasn't reached that goal yet, won the National Competition to earn a full ride scholarship to University of Texas.
Plus, as a footnote to the documentary, I.S. 318 in 2012 became the first ever Intermediate school to win the National High School Championship.
A superb documentary on a superb program and a superb group of kids.
Hard not to compare this film to Spellbound in that it shows students
working very hard in an intellectual pursuit in order to improve
themselves and open up new avenues for their futures. This is an
unfortunate comparison because really this film is not as good as
Spellbound on many levels and, to be honest, even without the direct
comparison it is easy to see weaknesses within Brooklyn Castle as a
documentary. I say "as a documentary" because as a general film it
works pretty well despite running a little longer than it can bear. The
main reason it works is because of the characters involved; the
teachers are passionate, the students are colorful, engaged and driven
and generally the viewer invests in them because of how likable and
interesting they are as people. This is something the filmmakers have
done well because, while some of the kids are instantly likable, some
of them are a little bit harder to get close to and in the edit good
selections have been made to bring their characters across the best.
In this way we care who wins and loses when the film inevitably comes down to the final contests. All of this is good and I liked the film for that but what disappointed me was that the attempts to speak bigger than them doesn't work as well. In terms of showing the value of after-school activities it is a no-brainer to see that this group of kids benefit greatly but I would have liked the film to do more with stats to show that this is true generally by contrasting with other schools and painting an undeniable picture of the importance of these programs. It does this well through the main thrust but there was room for more. Likewise the impact of budget cuts, it shows them and discusses them but it really doesn't hit it home and to be honest I watched the film thinking that actually 2-4% cut was not that bad and seemed to be well managed. I'm guessing this is not the message the film was trying to present (nor is it the case either I imagine) but the lack of bigger picture on the importance and the lack of bigger picture on the impact of the cuts really missed the opportunity to hit this message hard. The point of the film was not just to entertain with the story of this particular collection of students or this school, but on top of that to use them to make a bigger point and educate and engage the viewer (by drawing them into the former and then hitting their engaged-brains with the latter).
It is a shame that it doesn't do this as well as it should because it would have been a much stronger film for it. As it is, the film still works as an entertaining, engaging and uplifting look at these specific students, but just the important messages are not as well delivered as they should have been and that is a real disappointment for this as a documentary. Well worth seeing for what it does well though.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The film Brooklyn Castle offers an intimate and emotionally powerful
view into the world of junior and high school public schools in
Brooklyn and Manhattan in the late 2000s. Told mainly from the point of
view of Intermediate School 318's vice principal, John Galvin, who adds
an informative, pragmatic, yet deeply caring voice to the story, we
follow the travails and triumphs of their star chess team. The story
takes us through the tough requirements for interscholastic chess
competition and gives us insight into the minds of several grand
masters as well as the student's chess coach and teacher, Elizabeth
Vicary. From this intense and dedicated teacher we learn the benefits
to students of such a rigorous program: how chess allows students
turned off by other learning to delve deeply into a subject with many
openings for their interest, and how they learn that truth does not
only depend on a simple notion of right and wrong because of the
variety of options and outcomes in a chess game (apparently there are
more possible chess games than atoms in the universe).
We learn about Oghenakpobo Efekro (Pobo), a first-generation American born of Nigerian parentage, and his hugely effusive seventh and eighth grade personality as he takes charge and takes responsibility, triumphing both in chess and as class president of I.S. 308; we learn of little Justus, a fifth grader with a incoming ranking of 1900 (Albert Einstein ranked about 1800) and his successful confrontations with the reality of failure; of Patrick, a boy with ADHD and the heart of a warrior, struggling with all his might to win a single game in a big tournament (he advises us in one of the film's many disarmingly intimate short interviews that, though many people tell him he can learn from losing, he believes this is bullshit), and Rochelle Ballantyne, a young black woman with a reserved personality but the intellectual horsepower to have a prestigious New York City public school offer her, through special funding directly from the school board, a personal grand master chess coach. She also won, as a high school freshman, a full scholarship to University of Texas at Dallas by winning the national title.
A large part of the film deals with the effects of the 2008 financial crisis on I.S. 318 and their hard-fought battles to retain funding through involving the community, especially students' parents. As a Title I school, meaning at least 60% of the students live in poverty (about 70% at I.S. 318), this money has a huge impact on students' lives and future opportunities. Many of these students, without extracurricular programs (besides chess, think band, art, music, and after school clubs and activities) would have little opportunity to experience these things and far more opportunity to get in trouble with the law outside (or inside) of school. When we see such students as Pobo, who admitted in an interview that if not for chess, he would have kept up his bad boy ways with who knows what outcome -- certainly not talking to us for this film -- and Rochelle, who without the support and opportunities offered could not have succeeded in any manner even close to what she accomplished, the kids drive home the unquestionable importance of adequate resources for high-poverty schools.
Perhaps the most endearing quality the film possesses lies in its lack of overt political spin. Too many educational films give a one-sided approach that leaves the viewer questioning the motives of the producers. This FilmBuff (digital distributor) picture, however, works on its own as an independent film. John Sloss, the co-founder of FilmBuff and the film's producer Producers Distribution Agency (PDA) has academy award credits for The Fog of War and Boys Don't Cry, along with credit for such films as City of Hope and A Scanner Darkly, among others. The broad-based talent shows: the film's qualities easily appeal to a large audience on several levels, neatly straddling the lines between documentary, biography, personal empowerment, and the outright power of journalistic storytelling. One of the directors, Brian Schulz, has won three Emmys for his YES Yankeeography series, and John Sloss has served as a graduate professor at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Both the film's entertainment value and local knowledge of Brooklyn life show their influences.
Portrayed with little sympathy, however, are the people responsible for the financial crisis. In the words of vice principal John Galvin, the students were being punished for something that was not their fault.
The film captivated me from beginning to end. In such a well-crafted, well-researched piece of work, I am hard pressed to find any faults. I would only say that some of the important statistics the film invokes flash by on the screen a bit too quickly, and I found myself reviewing them while pausing the movie, something I'd be unable to do in a theater. Perhaps showing such statistics for four seconds, say, instead of two, might be helpful in this regard.
How do we keep brown kids from poor families in school and make them productive, caring citizens? The ancient game of chess, properly organized and taught, appears to offer an inroad to many. But the problem, as ever, lies in resources. I.S. 318 was hit hard by the financial crisis, forcing the staff, community and students to fight tooth and nail to continue their effective and worthy work with the hearts and minds of young people. The final question for the audience may well be this: are we willing, as a society, to do whatever it takes to maintain a quality education for all in the face of draconian financial cuts? In the words of Pobo, in a letter he drafted to a politician (the entire school wrote letters as well) it should not even be a question.
I have to agree.
If you're a lover of the game of chess and especially for those of who who subscribe to the Democratic Party philosophy of taking from others to give to your own causes, then this might be a movie for you. I thought it was going to be a movie about giving kids a chance to pull themselves up and out by achieving but it is, alas, a movie about complaining about greedy bankers who killed the economy instead. I'd like, for once, to see an honest movie about all who share the blame, including continuing to spend money we don't have and can no longer pay back. You think it's sad that kids can't play chess without funds? That's the very least of our troubles. These kids can take up to seven classes a week in chess. What? Seven classes for a fun, non-necessary skill? Can they read? Can they think independently? Can they do math and follow logic? Do they have the economic and financial basis for becoming productive citizens? Where are those classes? Do they know supply and demand? Guns vs. butter?
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