With the film Queen of Katwe (opening exclusively at Varsity Cinemas in Toronto on Friday, September 23 before expanding to theatres everywhere the following week), renowned filmmaker Mira Nair was offered a great story with connections close to her heart.
Based on a true story set in the slums of Uganda, the Disney produced Queen of Katwe tells the story of nine year old Phiona Mutesi (portrayed on screen by newcomer Madina Nalwanga), the daughter of an impoverished single mother and corn seller (Lupita Nyong’o) who despite not being able to read or write learns to be a chess prodigy thanks to the support of volunteer coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). Initially, Phiona’s mother wants her daughter nowhere near the sport, fearing it will give her unrealistic expectations for her future in the slums of Katwe, but Robert instils the young girl – and other kids on his chess team known as The Pioneers – with the strength and confidence to chase their dreams.
For Nair – best known for the critically acclaimed dramas like Salaam Bombay!, The Namesake, Mississippi Masala, and Monsoon Wedding – Queen of Katwe offered the Indian born filmmaker a chance to do something she hadn’t done before: shoot a movie in her own backyard.
Nair has made a home in Kampala, Uganda for the past twenty-seven years with her husband, Professor Mahmood Mandani. She lives startlingly close to the very slums where the real Phiona Mutesi was raised. If that isn’t serendipitous for any filmmaker, I don’t know what is.
“From living in Kampala, Uganda for almost the past thirty years, I’ve see the everyday dignity, the abject struggle, and the embrace of life around me, and I had never seen that on screen.”
“I was offered the project by Tendo Nagenda, who was kind of Disney’s guy in Uganda and who’s a wonderful, smart chap,” the charming and thoughtful Nair says about getting involved with the project during an interview shortly after the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last week, where it was one of the runners-up for the coveted People’s Choice Award.
“He called me up about four years ago, and he was in town, in Kampala, for a family reunion. He told me he was right down the street and asked if he could come up. He came with his whole family to my house for tea about an hour later. (laughs) We took a walk in my garden and he showed me this ESPN article he had about Phiona, this kid from about fifteen minutes away from me in Katwe who went from working as a corn seller to being on her way to becoming a chess prodigy en route to the Olympics, and he asked me if I wanted to maybe make a film about her.”
“I met Phiona a couple of weeks later, ironically in New York City where I also live, because she was there playing Kasparov at Lincoln Centre. We got along like a house on fire, but before we had even met, I had more or less agreed to do it anyway because the concept of the story is so remarkable. I’ve always been drawn to stories of people that are considered marginal to society. From Salaam Bombay! onward, this has been my beat.”
For Nair, who had never seen the true Ugandan experience captured on film before, it was the rare example of a major studio production that offered her a chance to share her own impressions of the land while telling an inspirational story the likes of which rarely get told in stories taking place in Africa.
“I went to research Mississippi Masala back in 1989, which was about the Asian expulsion committed by Idi Amin, and I was working on the screenplay,” Nair says about how she came to live in Uganda and how her experiences shaped her latest project. “It was my first time there, and it was the end of the civil war, and it was all soldiers and bombed out streets. Lo and behold, that was also where I fell in love with my husband of twenty-five years now. He’s a professor at the local university, and I have lived there ever since. I gave birth there. I’ve planted many gardens there. I started a film school there, called Maisha. It’s the place that I call home no matter where I go. So in a lot of ways, Queen of Katwe was about sharing my feelings of the place, smelling the place, and understanding things as simple as the local birds or knowing where the light is going to be in the morning. It’s lovely to be able to distil your whole way of living into a story that is true and inspiring and allows people to dream.”
“From living in Kampala, Uganda for almost the past thirty years, I’ve see the everyday dignity, the abject struggle, and the embrace of life around me, and I had never seen that on screen. First, it was about the challenge of consolidating what I know about that way of life, and living, and culture, and the streets, the fashion, the style, and slang, and humour, and then to distil all that into this remarkably true story of Phiona, who is someone who refuses to accept that she has to remain in this little area that she’s told she has been born into. That was wonderful, to be able to be in my front yard and know these places so well. I knew I could take you into a world that was both utterly truthful, but also full of vibrancy. You might go to sleep hungry in this place, but you’ll dance before going to sleep. That’s what I really love: that embrace of life. It’s not about despair and suffering or waiting for some saviour from the outside to come and help you. These are the kinds of stories we see there.”
“There is not just one person alone who has this kind of ‘I’m gonna make it, baby!’ mentality. It’s not totally about individualism. It truly takes a village to understand a young girl.”
While Nair jumped at the chance to make a film closer to the Uganda that she knows instead of a more clichéd portraiture of poverty in Africa, she understands and appreciates the gamble that Disney has taken with the film. It’s a resolutely African film, despite the presence of stars like Oyelowo and Nyong’o, that’s firmly rooted in a specific culture. And while she’s keenly aware of how a film like Queen of Katwe, which features a young, black, African, female lead, can be perceived by audiences at a time when on-screen diversity in Hollywood is a major issue, she credits Disney with seeing exactly the same thing she saw in Phiona’s story: universally relatable themes that go beyond geography, race, and sexuality.
“For me, it was vital to first present this prismatic view of the world,” she says about Queen of Katwe’s humanist approach. “There is not just one person alone who has this kind of ‘I’m gonna make it, baby!’ mentality. It’s not totally about individualism. It truly takes a village to understand a young girl. First, Phiona has a great mentor in Robert Katende, who sees in her this intelligence and harnesses it until she exceeds him. Then there’s Phiona’s mother who doesn’t want to see the disappointment in her own children over the same kinds of dreams she had that she didn’t achieve. The mother tells her children not to dream, but Phiona tells her own mother that it is possible to dream, but through a lot of complexity.”
“I hope there’s a great impact in showing what’s considered by many to be ‘the other side of the world.’ Firstly, it’s not about ‘the others.’ It’s about the complexity and relatability of humanity. Phiona’s dreams and her being misunderstood by her mother during her adolescence is not the story of people from another planet. That’s how we all grow up! It’s just that the conditions in which Phiona is growing up in Katwe are different. In a way, that teaches us how to live. As the coach says in the film, living there is defined by focusing on what you have, not on what you don’t have. So if you have an inch of water in a basin and you wash your hair with it, it’ll still come out clean. When people see it and they look at this new world as something that’s not all that foreign in nature, they’ll see the vibrancy of it and the dignity of its people. If people can see it, and be inspired by it, and see that they don’t need these outside saviours, you can really look within yourself and see that you can do anything. That would be amazing.”
“I was making a film about this reality in all its flamboyance. It’s a 100% African film, but the roots of it are also so universal that a company like Disney can stand by it. Disney is so passionate about the film, even though it’s a radical step for them. They never, not once, asked me to sanitize this film. They actually embraced the truth that I was giving to them because the truth was not a despairing, suffering portrait. The fact that you can achieve your potential and that you don’t have to belong where you’re told you belong and that you can live beyond the borders of your mind, those are all universal themes. I think it’s important that nothing gets looked at like it’s a simple black vs. white issue when talking about things like this. We always see the tales of a light skinned saviour coming to help the folks of the Dark Continent, or we see the stories of the brutality and child soldiers. We’ve never seen everyday joy and everyday struggle in a place like this. That’s a very important thing. It’s emblematic not so much of a diverse film, but of a real tapestry of human life that you can see on a daily basis.”
It’s also a major point of pride for Nair that the film, which shot largely on location in the streets of Kampala and Katwe, will have a lasting impact for the community, her film school, social programs, and the lives of the young cast who play members of Robert Katende’s chess team, The Pioneers. It was important to Nair that the efforts of the Ugandan community and its immense help in facilitating the project did not go unnoticed and unrewarded.
“There are some initiatives that have already been established,” Nair says about the lasting impact Queen of Katwe will have on Kampala. “Disney has purchased a building for the chess academy in Katwe so they have a permanent home. Similarly, Maisha is finishing their school building with Disney’s assistance, and it has also become the current home of the chess academy and also serves as a community centre for different inner city programs, including a literacy program. Then, there’s an educational fund that has been established for all of the kids who play The Pioneers on the chess team up through university, or at least that’s the plan. With the children, it’s very involved, and it’s a massive undertaking to look after these thirteen children and their paths in life. It’s beautifully challenging, but also very real. We also have a plan to work with the Katwe community to see what they need as sort of a gift from us to them, and we already know that one of their main concerns was to have more public toilets, so there will be a building of a series of those.”