I was invited to the #QueenofKatweEvent by Disney. All expenses were paid, however all opinions are my own.
After watching the movie, Queen of Katwe and seeing how beautifully it was portrayed, I was so excited for our interview with the director of the film, Mira Nair. I was so captivated by the vibrancy and colors that were used in the film and the different angles that were used to capture each scene were absolutely stunning. I knew that the director herself would be just as stunning– and she was!
The minute she walked into the interview room, we all cheered for her and her energy was so contagious. You could tell how proud she was of this movie because her passion showed through not only in her work, but also in the way she spoke to us. It really moved me. I hope you enjoy reading through our interview with her!
Can you tell us about how you got involved in the project?
I’ve been living in Kampala now 27 years ever since I made “Mississippi Masala” there in 1989. I started my life there, fell in love, had a son, planted gardens, and created a film school called Maisha. The slogan of Maisha is if we don’t tell our own stories, no one will. Because there are so few images of Africa on any screen and when there are it’s usually death, despair, dictators, we created the school because we have to make the dignity and the joy of everyday life in our street in Kampala, everywhere. But it was such irony that despite my being surrounded by local stores for 12 years that this story of Phiona Mutesi, who lived 15 minutes from home, I did not know about.
A young man from this building, Tendo Nagenda, who is Ugandan, came to see me in my garden in Kampala when he was at a family reunion about four years ago. He showed me this little article about Phiona in the ESPN journal about this child who sold corn in Katwe who is now heading to become a chess prodigy and going to the Olympiad in Russia. I was completely struck by the story and I said, I’d love to meet Phiona.
Then I met Harriet who took me just below where i lived, where she was evicted when her husband died. We spent the day going from one place to another where she had been with her four kids– in an abandoned church, the veranda of a little vendor stand, a shop somewhere, finally a little room. When I saw the trajectory of the actual struggle, the homelessness, the struggle and her fierceness to keep her family together against absolutely every odd there was, it was deeply moving.
Mira Nair Tells Us About Her Gardens
Mira Nair told us a story about the first time she invited Harriet and Phiona to her home after the annual dinner she hosted in her school. It was Harriet’s first time seeing a garden to the extent of Mira Nair’s and at the time Harriet had just gotten a new house. So Harriet tells her that she would love for Mira Nair to come plant in her garden. She said, “it is because I have seen your garden that I will allow you to plant mine.” And that Harriet was a real dignified woman and this all made us laugh because we thought it was great!
On Filming the Game of Chess
It’s really a challenge to film chess because it’s a highly intellectual game and it’s about strategizing and making moves. So how can I as a visual filmmaker make chess interesting? These were really truthful games, they were real games, real moves that Phiona was famous for. It wasn’t just a made-up situation. So we really looked at every game as a unique visual challenge. We filmed every game differently from the other. That was a challenge because there’s only so many things you can do with a chess board. How to create chess so that it can be emotional, dramatic, propel the story forward and yet not bore you to death.
Did you play chess before or did you have to learn the game?
I was the mother of a competitive chess payer. My son played competitive chess when he was eight and we went to all kinds of places. But Phiona Mutesi, the real Phiona, taught me chess prior to shooting. She would just laugh at me because I was reckless and she would say, “Mira, you must consider the other side of the board” and I would write that down and say, “that’s a great line, Phiona!” It’s like a metaphor for the world you know, it we all considered the other side of he world it would make life work. So I used to write down what she would say and use some of that in the movie.
On Casting the Actors
If you know my work, I always work with a lot of non-actors– people who have never faced the camera before. For me, it was always critical that we don’t go too far afield to find our children. All our kids came from Katwe or Chibuli which is the neighboring community. For Phiona, I saw 700 girls from July about six months prior to shooting from Uganda, Kampala, Kenya, and England but I was sure that we would find her in Uganda. It was tough because this is the role that carries the whole film. I trust my instinct and I trust love and you cannot have hesitation on casting.
So in January, six months after I had seen so many girls, my close friend Dinaz Stafford who’s the casting direction and my son who was her associate, he led her not he streets on the Chibuli to a little dance company where young kids learn traditional dancing and perform in hotels on Sunday nights. They filmed Madina dancing and smiling, and came home during dinner to show me that they have another possible Phiona. I kind of just rolled my eyes and though, oh my God, seven hundred already and then they showed me the film and she was magnetic.
I still put her through the ringer for three weeks of testing and learning to play chess. Since the age of four she has had an extremely similar life to Phiona and where chess was Phiona’s way out, dancing was Madina’s. Dance had given her this great balletic grace over her body that is a very beautiful thing to have as a film actor. She was extraordinary. So the other children were cast similarly. Four kids came from that dance company, Martin who plays her brother was in a football club. All the kids were either open-casting calls, on the streets, and in the national theater.
Challenges faced in bringing the story to life?
The most beautiful challenge was to distill the love and familiarity I have with my adopted home of Uganda, the people, the sassiness, the vibrancy, the style, the emphasis on smartness and cleanliness and going to school– it’s massive, regardless of what you have. So I wanted to capture that emphasis of ‘no matter what we don’t have, we will put forward something that is excellent’ and the great challenge was to capture the sense of somebody who embraces life fully and doesn’t complain about what they don’t have. That is the quality of what I live around and that is the quality that I hoped to capture. Phiona, in her real remarkably and utterly true story gives us so much of that.
The other thing I wanted to capture is that you cannot do it alone. You have to have the fire in you, but it takes a village. It takes a teacher to see your talent, it takes a mother to shepherd you– whether it’s right shepherding or not. You know, she wants to protect her children from disappointment. She says there is not point to have dreams because you will be disappointed. But Phiona proves to her mother quietly and steadily that it is possible with a teacher like this, with a community like this, with a street like this, with a family like this, it is possible to achieve what you could dream for. That is the beauty of life there. That is what I wanted to achieve. It’s not just one girl’s story but what I call the prismatic story. The story of the whole street, the whole family, the mother and the complexity of every character.
Queen of Katwe opens in theaters everywhere on September 30!
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