In the second half of this roundtable round up, I had the opportunity to sit down with the inspiration for the book and film Queen of Katwe Phiona Mutesi, her mentor Robert Katende, director Mira Nair and a group of other journalists during the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. Below are the highlights of our moving conversation.
Robert Katende and Phiona Mutesi
On what it was like seeing their story on the big screen:
Robert: Personally, it was very emotional. It just draws you back to that particular time and seeing your life being replayed in front of you just moved us to tears.
On how chess changed her life:
Phiona: Before I started playing chess, I dropped out of school, but I’m back in now finishing high school and I’ll be going to university next year. I hope to study law and explore the world. The life I lead now is so different and I find it hard to go back to anything resembling what it was before. I bought my mom’s house outside the slum and it’s my favorite place to be. Right now food is not a problem at home. We are safe and have a comfortable place to sleep. Life is good, very good.
On why she wants to study law:
Phiona: I used to see kids in the slum and they have no one to speak for them. No one comes to their defense and I want to study law to be a voice for them.
On working with Mira and Madina Nalwanga before filming:
Phiona: I met the actress before they started filming. I was so excited, but we didn’t talk that much because I was busy with school. I didn’t spend too much time on set but did stop by a few times just to look on. I enjoyed watching the whole process when I could.
On seeing her story on-screen surrounded by over 2000 people:
Phiona: It was so unbelievable. The hardest part was the red carpet. I was panicking a little bit. I’ve never been in front of so many people. Then to go inside and see my story play out in front of all of them… it was so humbling and so emotional.
On the appeal of chess:
Phiona: The skills you use in chess can be applied to life. Planning, for example. When you look at the board, you have to plan, you have to strategize. How am I going to start this game? How am I going to use this piece? How am I going to drop this king? If you mess up, the game is over and you lose. Planning and strategy are very important.
On facing discrimination during tournaments:
Phiona: I played at a tournament in Russia and it was the first time I had ever played against a White opponent – a woman from Canada. I was so scared; I couldn’t focus and was so nervous. These tournaments are a level playing field and everyone is treated fairly, so I never experienced discrimination. I was aware that I was different than anyone there, but was never discriminated against.
On recognizing Phiona’s potential:
Robert: As someone who grew up in the slums, I know what girls go through, what they face and how they carry themselves as a result. So many are marginalized and so timid because of it. When Phiona first came to the program, I saw her determination to survive. She was never shy about taking on anyone, even the boys. Her determination was very evident and I just wanted to help. The environment teaches them to be very physically aggressive. I wanted to channel that aggression to the chessboard. I wanted to teach them to use their minds to fight, plan, strategize and survive.
On both he and David Oyelowo being men of faith:
Robert: Before shooting started in Uganda, we had about two week to hang out together. He never revealed to me that he was a religious guy. After spending that time together and many rounds of questions to get to know my personality, he asked if he could go with me to Sunday service. He went with me to one of the churches in the Katwe slums and we formed a great connection then.
I don’t usually bring up my religion, especially when I’m doing outreach because in our program there are Muslims, Christians – there’s a variety of religions. We are open to everyone. Sometimes people ask me why I’m able to do the things I do and then I share my faith with them, but I do that without discrimination, without judgment. I’m neutral unless someone asks. I know my journey, I know what I went through as a child and I see my life as a miracle.
On what they hope the impact of the film will be:
Robert: I hope the movie sends a message and encourages people to live selflessly and help others. One thing I’ve come to learn in life is that it’s important to not dwell on how much you have or don’t have, but look at how you can make someone else’s life better. That’s more rewarding. If you’re doing that, be encouraged. If not, step out and do it.
I also hope Katwe and other areas like it get more support. There’s a lot of work to do. Many people don’t realize how much and sometimes it can be overwhelming and people back away. They want to see change in a day or in a year and it doesn’t work that way. I’ve been there for 10 years and there’s still so much work to be done. When I count the number of lives I’ve been able to transform it’s not really not much – maybe 100 or so over 10 years. But those lives that have been touched, I’m sure the generations after them will be transformed too.
Phiona: I just hope people are encouraged. If more kids are interested in chess after seeing the movie (especially in Katwe), I would love to be able to build a center for them where they can learn and play together.
On filming in Uganda:
It’s been my home for 27 years and I hope it will be my home forever. I live within 15 minutes of every location. It’s a joy and a privilege because I have lived amongst that every day dignity and sass and style and for so long and have never seen it on screen anywhere. The stories of Africa – if they’re made at all – are stories of other people (foreigners) in Africa. To make a film that is about a specific community and a place that I have known from within for so long was a great joy. I can take you in and not be afraid of the complexity of he slang, struggle, the life. It was wonderful to be able to show that with a true story, a remarkable story of a girl who refused to be contained.
It was designed to make you feel like you were there – like with the colors for instance. The redness of Kampala and the earth, the green of the fauna. I love that the first thing you see when visiting Kampala on any other street is school children happily crossing the street in their uniforms and heading to school. I haven’t seen that in any story so far. Disney embraced all of what I wanted to show. It is not a portrait of despair. There is a vibrancy to living no matter what you have. Robert tells Phiona: “Focus on what you have, not what you don’t have.” That’s such an important thing to show the world and to make the world remember.
On balancing emotion with sentimentality in the film:
It’s not the spirit of this film to be sentimental or self-referential. This is a film about a village helping a girl achieve her fullest potential. It is not a one-woman show. I wanted to show that it’s a prismatic world. I wanted you to understand the mother and her confusion about the nature of chess and refusal to let her child be disappointed by dreaming while trying to understand her daughter’s gift.
On her history with Lupita Nyong’o:
Her parents and I are old friends. We’ve known each other for many decades. Both my husband and her father are academics and involved in politics – real mates. When Lupita was interested in film, she came to work for my production company as an intern. We had a lot of visitors at the office during those days just to behold her. (Laughs) Then she was the production coordinator at the Maisha Film Lab in Kampala and was quickly cast as the actor in all the student films. She’s just a strong, beautiful, person. That kind of formidable strength in Harriet is the same strength found in Lupita. She is truly a citizen of the world in the sense that she understands and imbues the politics of the world and she is a resolute Kenyan and very proud of her heritage.
On telling the story of subjects who are still alive and well:
It was important to David that his portrayal of Robert not be just an imitation. It was more about capturing Robert’s spirit and working with that. Otherwise, it feels like you’re just a carbon copy and that doesn’t work.
Uganda is one of the most courteous countries in the world. Courtesy is a big thing and there’s a self-effacing quality to it. It’s not an assertive or loud place at all. David is of Nigerian heritage and they are very assertive. As such, even his “Good morning!” needed to be toned down. “Keep it sweet, quiet and humble, ” I told him, and it worked.
On what constituted an average shooting day in Kampala:
I’ll give you an example: filming in the church where Robert teaches the children how to play chess. That’s a real place in the center of Katwe and we had 17 kids on set and several games to shoot. At 7:00 AM, kids are taking their places and I talk to them all and get them prepared. They’ve gone through 3 hours of chess training everyday, so they’re ready to go. Because it takes us almost an hour to set up, the kids are already lost in the chess game by the time we’re ready. They’re not waiting for me to call “Action.” I’d have to ask them to start over. Then I had to explain “Okay, play, but don’t make noise when you put the piece on the board because we need to record dialogue.” The key was to be ready for whatever was happening, but focused on the chess and kids. We had a very limited budget and schedule so we had a lot to accomplish every day. We did it. We kept it fun. We were a family.
Queen of Katwe will be released nation-wide on September 30, 2016.
Find the first half of the roundtable round up with Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo here.
Find a review of the film by Afiya Augustine here.