October 22 2016
Mira Nair has been based in Kampala, Uganda for a long time but even she did not know about the amazing work of Robert Katende and his incredible find, chess prodigy, Phiona Mutesi on whom the film ‘Queen of Katwe’ is based…
By Suman Bhuchar
ONE OF THE INSPIRATIONAL films of this year has to be “Queen of Katwe” by director Mira Nair, which was screened at the BFI London Film Festival (October 5-16).
I caught it at a screening at a posh hotel where the director was present along with the two leads, Hollywood stars, David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o.
“Queen of Katwe”, is the true story of Phiona Mutesi (played by Madina Nalwanga) a young chess prodigy born in Katwe – a slum in the city of Kampala – who goes on to become a world class champion.
“I’ve lived in Kampala since I made ‘Mississipi Masala’ there in 1989 and always engaged with the idea that if we don’t tell our own stories no one else will,” she told the enthusiastic audience.
Nair has always looked to make cinema that speaks to world audiences, but this story was told to her by, Tendo Nagenda, vice president of production at Walt Disney studios.
Nagenda whose father is from Uganda and mother from Belize was in Kampala for a family reunion.
“He called me up and came to my garden literally with his whole family and showed me this article about Phiona Mutesi who was just about to go to Russia living fifteen minutes from where we were standing but I had never heard of her and that was her story!”
(Note this was an article by the journalist, Tim Crothers who has now also written a biography of Mutesi called “Queen of Katwe”).
Naturally, she leapt at the tale of an inspirational young woman living at the margins of society finding her way through her own mettle but supported by an inspirational teacher named, Robert Katende, (played in the film by David Oyelowo) who founded a chess club in a church in Katwe as a way of helping the local children learn about life and have a cup of hot porridge.
“The first thing I did was meet Phiona and Robert – ironically again in Lincoln Centre in New York City – she was playing Kasparov – and that’s also where I live and we were three fishes out of water, speaking quasi Luganda and having a lot of fun on Upper West Side and I immediately connected with her and loved Phiona’s self-possessed, almost slightly mysterious, quality,” said Nair.
Nair who has been running a film academy in Kampala called Maisha Film Lab since 2004 then went on to make a short film on Robert Katende with all her students as a way of enticing Oyelowo and Nyong’o to join the project, but they didn’t really need any persuading.
This film, “A Fork, A Spoon and A Knight” (see link below) also helped Disney to understand life in Uganda and get excited about an African story.
Oyelowo told the audience that the last time he appeared at the London Film Festival was in 2006 for the film, “The Last King of Scotland”, which presented a very different picture about Uganda focusing on the brutal regime of Idi Amin and so to have a film with a ‘different African narrative’ where the significance of seeing a black man who loves his wife and has kids couldn’t be underestimated. Katende is a family man and his own story as an orphan who made something of himself is equally inspiring.
Lupita Nyong’o who plays, Phiona’s mother, Harriet said she felt excited by the script because it presented a “complex, layered group of people each with their own wants and needs, it was a script that was very alive. I could tell there was a lot of love at the heart of this and a really inspiring story”.
Nyong’o said she arrived in Uganda about three weeks before the shooting to immerse herself in the culture and to meet the person she was about to play, a rarity for actors.
“I met Harriet with Robert Katende’s help as she only speaks Luganda and what I found in her presence was she’s very enigmatic, grounded.
I asked her why she let Phiona go to Robert’s chess academy and her response was ‘he could give her a cup of porridge when I couldn’t’”.
Finding the young lead to play the part of Mutesi took about seven months and they auditioned around 700 girls for the part.
It was her casting associate, Dinaz Stafford and Nair’s son, Zohran Mamdani who took Mira to Chebuli, another slum in Kampala – where young children were at a dance academy learning traditional dances to perform at hotels – where they saw this “beautiful arresting girl with a smile impossible to resist”.
She was Mandina Nalwanga who had a life that almost mirrored that of Phiona Mutesi.
The rest of the children who play the Pioneers (chess club kids) were also found in the two slums and the company spent weeks workshopping before filming began and a third of the local Ugandan crew are alumni from Maisha.
It’s an inspirational story of triumph over adversity and the company is working through some initiatives to continue to support the children from the film through their further education, while Walt Disney is assisting Robert Katende to partly acquire a chess academy in Katwe.
‘Queen of Katwe’ was on release in the UK from October 21 2016
All images (except film one) courtesy of BFI & https://www.image.net