Imagine seeing a movie in a theatre for the first time. Now imagine the first movie you see on the big screen is the story of your life. That’s what happened to Phiona Mutesi.
“I’ve never been in a theatre,” she said at the Toronto International Film Festival the night after Queen of Katwe premiered in front of a sold out crowd of twenty-six hundred people. “This has been my first time.”
Based on the book The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster the movie tells the tale of how Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), an illiterate girl from a very poor family in Kampala, Uganda, learns to play chess and with the help of mentor Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) moves from local tournaments to the World Chess Olympiad.
“We have had video shacks for the longest time,” says director Mira Nair, a Uganda resident of almost three decades, “but until five years ago we didn’t have theatres in malls. The price of a ticket is almost ten dollars which prices it out of everyone’s reach. It is true that a kid like Phiona would not choose to spend that kind of money to go to the theatre. She’d see a pirated DVD in a shack somewhere.”
The Disney movie was shot on the streets of Kampala and features over 100 local actors, many of whom, Nair points out, had never seen a camera before.
“I actually took a bunch of the kids to see Jurassic World while we were doing the film,” says star David Oyelowo, “and Madina [Nalwanga] who plays Phiona was sat next to me and was clutching me the whole time, terrified by the movie. She turned to me and said, ‘Is this what we are doing?’ I asked her if she had ever seen a film before and she said no. We were halfway through shooting a film in which she is playing the lead.”
Oyelowo, a Golden Globe nominee for his work playing Martin Luther King in Selma, says working with the young, inexperienced actors was a “was a wonderful thing for the film.”
“Because the kids in this film were not necessarily connecting what we were doing in shooting the film with what they had seen before, because they hadn’t seen a movie in a movie theatre before, it meant there was something really unaffected, something really free, something genuine about their performances. I found I was getting a refresher course in how to be truthful in front of a camera. Inevitably after you have done a few movies you start adopting a house style. You start knowing too much in a sense. Even though it is kind of a mind-blowing thing that they haven’t seen a movie, because we in the west take it very much for granted, it actually lends a very specific quality to the film itself.”
Nair, whose Ugandan film school Maisha Film Lab is taking a thousand school kids to the theatres to see the movie, says Queen of Katwe is “really a portrait of ourselves. It’s going to make a sea change in terms of people realizing that we matter, that our stories can put bums on seats.”