Basketball changed Jenny Schweitzer’s life. A photographer inspired by the work of Helen Levitt, Sally Mann, and Diane Arbus — photographers who told entire, revealing, personal stories in single frames — Jenny found herself studying the medium at the Rhode Island School of Design. “During my sophomore year at RISD, I went to a screening of Steve James’ Hoop Dreams,” she tells us. “After viewing that documentary, I decided to pursue film. What strongly appealed to me was that no other medium can command such a personal, emotional impact as a powerful, well-executed film.”
Jenny’s most recent film is the short, Girls in Chess which, like its title suggests, sees the New York-based filmmaker looking at the gender gap in the world of competitive American scholastic chess.
“The motivation of the project came from a very personal place for me, which I mostly detailed in the accompanying essay for The New Yorker,” Jenny tells us. “I approached the US Chess Federation to make the piece in collaboration and they were fully on board from the get-go. Their mission is to close the gender gap in competitive chess. I was somewhat surprised that the piece attracted so much attention from people who have no interest or experience with the game.”
During the course of her filmmaking career to date, Jenny’s found herself returning time and time again to the changing face of childhood in the modern world. Films like Satellite Baby (an exploration of the phenomenon whereby Chinese-American parents send their very young children to China to be raised by grandparents, only to return to the US when they’re school-aged) and Joselyn (in which Jenny turns her gaze toward a school for the blind), have marked her out as both a sensitive documentarian, and as someone able to capture children at their brilliant best.
“If you can get past their initial silliness you find subjects stripped of all awkwardness,” she says of the process of working with children. “There’s an openness and authenticity found in children that’s rarely found while filming adults." She likes working with the very young to working with the very old, noting that “both often surprise me with their honest, uninhibited reflections of society.”
Jenny adds, “One may not necessarily think that children can perceive certain societal stigmas and cultural anomalies, but they are so aware and affected by them. To illustrate, in my short, The Way It Works, my daughter, who was four at the time of the filming, reveals the impact the princess culture had on her. On the face of it, it’s a charming, whimsical little film. But if you take a deeper look, it’s a horrifying, glaringly honest portrayal of how detrimental focusing on the princess theme is in a child’s early years.”
When the It’s Nice That team first watched Girls in Chess we wondered how she managed to capture the ambition of her subjects in a way that didn’t scan as trite, or saccharine. Jenny tells us that her tactic is simple: “speak to them not as children, but as equals.”
She says that since the film debuted, she’s received numerous emails from parents who thank her, and expressed an interest in exposing their girls to the game of chess. “My favourite email,” Jenny says, “came from a teacher who thought the film’s message was important enough to screen it for his 3rd grade classroom on their first day of school. That meant a lot to me.”
Shot in Jenny’s usual un-showy way — hers are films where the stories themselves take centre-stage — Girls in Chess is a tender document of what it means to accept loss with dignity, and how gender differences impact on a granular level, even in the supposedly calm world of chess.
It also celebrates a game that Jenny evidently has a lot of fondness for. “Besides developing problem-solving skills and concentration, in my mind, what chess and the chess programs in schools do best is getting children to sit opposite each other, not sit across from a computer, and play a game.”