Interviewing Directors is a passion of mine. Talking to the filmmakers of a certain project always bring to life what it truly means to love one’s job. You also learn quite a bit about their process and fun facts. Queen of Katwe is one of those films that every single person involved has not only love for the people and the story itself but a deep respect for it. Check out the interview below:
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about how you got involved in the project and how you did a documentary?
MN: Yeah. I’ve been living in Kampala now 27 years, ever since I made Mississippi Masala there in 1989. (It) was the first I went, and started my life there. Fell in love and had a son and planted gardens and created a film school called Maisha. The slogan of Maisha is if we don’t tell our own stories, no one else will. Because there are so few images of African on any screen anywhere and when there are, it’s usually, death, despair, dictators, bestiality. So, we created the school, because we have to make the dignity and the joy of everyday life in our street in Kampala, anywhere. Be specific. Be local. Be truthful. And be excellent. It was such irony that despite my being surrounded by local stories for 12 years — we have 680 alumni students now, we have several directors we have created from East Africa — that this story of Phiona Mutesi, who lived 15 minutes from home — I did not know about her.
I knew about her, because a young man from this building, Tendo Nagenda, who’s a Ugandan, VP of Disney 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 now was heading to becoming a chess prodigy and going to the Olympics in Russia. I was completely struck by the story. Because for me that is what I live around. I said I’d love to meet Phiona first. I met her funnily enough in New York City where I lived. I lived half my time in Uganda and half the time in New York, and Phiona was playing in New York. I met her there and with Robert, Robert Katende, and we had such a lovely connection instantly, because we are Ugandan and we were like joking, slanging, everything.
Then go to know her really well and also Robert. (I) asked to meet Harriet and spent a lot of time with Harriet who took me, just below where I lived is where she was evicted when her husband died. She took me in the ramshackled ran, we spent the day just going from one place to another where she had been with her four kids, you know, at abandoned church, the veranda of a little vendor stand, a shop somewhere, finally a little room. When I saw the trajectory of actually the struggle. The homelessness, the struggle and her fierceness to keep her family together against absolutely every odds there was, it just was so deeply moving and great, because, she was full of courage and full of pragmatism. She was not a defeated woman by any means. To have a house at the end of it made by her daughter’s earnings.
Then there’s another story worth (telling), even though you haven’t asked I’ll tell you. I have this school. So, I have a dinner, for all the students who come to my shchool once a year. I invited Harriet and Phiona and everyone that year. They came to my home and, you forget when you live in a home with a garden and whatever, you think people have seen a home with a garden, but not Harriet. She had never been in a place like that. A home and looking at my garden. I’m a real gardener. I have a nursery. I create my own plants. I create my tree nurseries, everything. She looked at the garden very quietly and I said, I would love to come and he had got the new house by then. I said I would love to come and plant your garden. She just looked very quiet and she looked everywhere and she said it is because I have seen your garden that I will allow you to plant mine.
It was great, because she’s so dignified and not like thank you so much. The next day my pickup truck I put 80 plants and I drove out to her home and planted the garden over the course of a day. Then someone gifted her a smartphone.And every time a flower blooms — that’s what I get, because she doesn’t speak English. She speaks Ugandan. She clicks the flower and she sends it to me. So, I have this sort of love connection with Harriet, which is without words but just to do with trees, ever since.
Q: What challenges did you face bringing the story to life?
MN: The most beautiful challenge was to distill the love and familiarity I have with my own home, my adopted home of Uganda, the people, the sassiness, the vibrancy, the style. Like Kampala is the center of used clothing in the world to give you an example. Clothes come in by weight,. There’s that market called Owino where Lupita goes as Harriet to sale her mother’s 9outfit). That is the market. Everyone dresses from that. The emphasis on smartness and cleanliness and going to school is massive, regardless of what you have. So you see the style of like a pucci dress with a kitenge wrap on her — you know, that’s how my fish seller gives me fish every second day, you know. So, I wanted to capture that sort of emphasis of like no matter what we don’t have, we will put forward something that is excellent, you know. The great challenge was to capture that sense of what we call in slang in Kampala lifist, somebody who embraces life fully and doesn’t complain about what you don’t have. If you have half an inch of water, you will wash your hair and no one will know that you had a struggle.
This the quality of what I live around and this is the quality that I hoped to capture. And, of course, Phiona, in her real remarkably and utterly true story, gives us so much of that. The other thing I really 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 hepherd you, whether it is a right shepherding or not, whether she has to argue and not understand that it is a gambling game, is it not a gambling. She wants to protect her children from disappoint. There is no point, she says, to have dreams, because you will be disappointed. But Phiona proves to her mother quietly and steadily that it is possible to — 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. And 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 story of the family, the story of the mother and the complexity of every character.
So that was the challenge. The othersweet challenge was filming chess, you know [CHUCKLES]. It’s really a challenge to film chess, because it’s a highly intellectual game. I’s about strategizing and making moves, and how can I as a visual filmmaker, as a visualist, make chess interesting? What we did — and these were really truthful games. They were real games, real moves that Phiona was famous for. It wasn’t a made-up situation. So, Sean Bobbitt, our cinematographer, and myself really looked at every game as a unique visual challenge. Like we, we filmed every game differently from the other. That was a challenge, because there’s only so many things you can do with the chess board. How to create chess so that it can be emotional, dramatic, and propulsive. Propel the story forward and yet not bore you to death and yet be, satisfying the chess officiandos.
— kasandria (@SBellasWays) September 20, 2016
Young Cardamom who is responsible for the hit #1 Spice in the song is acutally the Director Mira Nair’s SON!
Check out the video from the movie to see this catchy song don’t forget to catch Queen Of Katwe in theaters September 30 2016!
PLUS here’s the trailer to the movie:
***Disclosure: I attended the #QueenOfKatwe + #ABCTVEvent My flight, lodgings, and expenses were covered by Disney All opinions are 100% mine. ***