Chess is often depicted in popular culture as a game for the elderly, however, Jenny Schweitzer Bell’s latest film, The Magic of Chess, proves this could not be further from the truth.
Her documentary short captures the perspectives of passionate chess players aged between five and nine years old, set against the backdrop of the prestigious National Elementary Chess Championships in Nashville.
“Following my short documentary Girls in Chess, I was approached by US Chess (the governing body representing chess players in the US) to create a short piece to promote the game,” explains Jenny. “Specifically, they were interested in capturing their youngest members’ perspectives on the benefits of chess. As chess is increasingly prevalent in school curriculums, I thought to depict the importance of the game from a child’s perspective would not only be a challenge, but a unique angle on the topic.”
Having already made a film about chess, the reason for Jenny’s return to the subject was a personal one, inspired by observations close to home. “Watching my eight-year-old daughter’s experiences in chess, I’ve witnessed the benefits of a young person’s dedication to the game firsthand. I’ve seen countless ways that playing competitively has enhanced her education – not just with the nuts and bolts of the game itself, but from all the psychological benefits chess has given her,” she says.
The film, like many of Jenny’s others, is narrator-less with interview dialogue the only thing driving a story and narrative through the piece. Relying on young children to provide strong enough answers for this was an initial worry of hers, however, she quickly realised it shouldn’t have been. “I wondered if these young players would have the maturity to articulate what chess offers them on camera,” she explains. “The film was challenging in that respect and I was initially sceptical that I would be able to get them to articulate some of these aspects on camera. The kids proved me wrong and taught me not to undermine their young perspectives.”
To compensate for the lack of narration, Jenny has certain methods she uses to set the scene. You would not imagine the location for a chess tournament would provide much help in this regard, however as is evident in the film’s establishing shots, it is not your average venue.
“In all of my work that relies heavily on interviews, it is imperative that the setting in which these subjects inhabit is interwoven to create texture and intrigue. The Gaylord Opryland in Nashville is essentially an enormous bubble, complete with an atrium domed rooftop and a river moat that offers boat rides. The vastness of the location and the small decorative details, added to the ‘magical’ theme I was aiming for,” explains Jenny. “For a weekend, these kids are essentially enclosed in this enormous bubble where everyone is living and breathing chess. To one who is new to the chess tournament world, it’s otherworldly. One of my favourite b-roll shots is the quiet moment of a father and young son, laid out in one of the tournament halls looking at tactics on an iPhone.”
To help her cram as many interviews as possible into the time, US Chess asked people beforehand to see if they wanted to speak, meaning that Jenny could book in interviews throughout the weekend. “I wanted to ensure that I had a balance of gender and age, so I allotted many of the kids in slots prior to the tournament itself. Once we were there, I was able to pinpoint and interview certain kids I thought could shine on camera.”
She also refrained from screening them before interviews because she felt that this would help to bring out more natural and interesting conversations. Based on the many entertaining and tender moments in the film, this clearly worked. “I never pre-interviewed the kids. In general, I don’t like to pre-interview. I find that the interviews are more spontaneous and heartfelt responding to questions for the first time while the camera is rolling,” she says.
The range of emotions present in the interviews serves as a strong reminder of how important chess can be in the lives of young people, despite its reputation. “Tanitoluwa Adewumi says at the end: ‘Chess is like magic.’ That’s a powerful statement for an activity that has historically been stigmatised as a game for nerds,” says Jenny. “I hope the film backs up that line.”
About the Author
Charlie joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in December 2019. He has previously worked at Monocle 24, and The Times following an MA in International Journalism at City University. If you have any ideas for stories and work to be featured then get in touch.