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Kids Prove They're No Pawns In 'Brooklyn Castle'

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There's a public middle school in Brooklyn, N.Y., called Intermediate School 3-18, or IS 3-18. Like others in the area, it's a Title I school, which means it has a poverty level that's more than 65 percent. But unlike other schools, it's got the highest-ranked junior-high chess team in the nation. In fact, Brooklyn IS 3-18 has won more than 30 national chess titles.

IS 3-18 is the subject of a new documentary called Brooklyn Castle. The film has picked up audience awards at the SXSW and Hot Docs film festivals.

Director Katie Dellamaggiore talks to Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered, about her experience making Brooklyn Castle, and how the financial crisis turned the film into an unexpected story.

Interview Highlights

On the families of IS 3-18

"When I met the kids, I knew that we would want to go into their homes, and meet their families and kind of get to know them as people. I was so happy to be able to share that with the audience because I think a lot of people don't get to hear those kind of stories. Even if their parents are working two, three jobs a day, even. I mean, Pobo's mom [Pobo Efekoro is one of the students featured in the film] at the time that we were shooting, she used to sleep for three hours a day because she would run a day care out of her home until five o'clock in the evening, and then she would head to a night shift as an aide at a nursing home and work the night shift overnight, and then come back and work at the daycare. I was like, 'Pobo, when does your mom sleep?'"

On filming when the financial crisis hit

"[Assistant Principal] John Galvin called me actually, to tell me, 'Hey Katie — we got hit with some really bad budget cuts, and I don't know if we're going to be able to afford to take the kids to all their tournaments this year.' He said to me, 'Oh, maybe you don't want to make the film anymore.' He was being very sweet. But I explained to him that if this was just a competition film where all it was about was tournaments and whether the kids won or lost, then surely yeah — not going to the tournaments would be a big deal. But ultimately, it's a documentary. What happens happens. And this was a bigger story, one that I could never have expected, and one that we wanted to tell. If they didn't go, then that would be the story."

On 11-year-old student Patrick Johnson

"It wouldn't be a whole picture of the team if we just kind of skimmed off the top and took just the top kids and didn't include the kids who weren't going to become master. You know, John Galvin and [coach] Elizabeth Vicary always said that part of what they think makes the team really special is that they don't just take the top kids to the tournaments. They really are an inclusive team and so you don't have to be any good to play, you can just show up. And as long as you keep showing up, that's enough for them."

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