Disclaimer: Disney and ABC invited me to Los Angeles on an all-expenses paid trip, in exchange for my coverage of these events, which included Disney’s Queen of Katwe red carpet premiere and this interview with Queen of Katwe Director Mira Nair. As always, all opinions are my own.
The Only Choice
It was fate that brought Mira Nair to the dirt streets of Katwe, where the true life story of Phiona Mutesi unfolds. Upon first glance, you might think that a Hollywood director, and one of the few strong female Hollywood directors at that, wouldn’t quite fit in. But you would be so wrong.
Director Mira Nair was not only the right choice to lead A-list actors like Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo, but she was the only choice in my opinion. You see, Mira Nair has lived in the heart of Uganda for 27 years, though born in India and also living in the United States. She has built a home in Uganda, raised a son there, and against all odds, created a film school called Maisha.
Mira Nair is embedded into the fabric of the Ugandan community. She is part of it. And there could be no better director to help the story of Queen of Katwe come alive on the big screen.
As I mentioned earlier this week, Queen of Katwe is a movie that touches your heart and NEEDS to be seen.
I had the chance to sit down with Director Mira Nair just hours before the red carpet premiere.
If We Don’t Tell Our Own Stories, No One Else Will.
Ah, as I heard Mira Nair make this statement, I was reminded of my own stories. Some stories I’ve shared with the world, others I’ve kept close to my heart. But she is right, “If we don’t tell our own stories, no one else will.” – and that’s why Mira Nair made that the slogan of her film school.
What she didn’t realize is that there was a story in her own backyard, a mere 15 minutes away from her lovely home, that needed to be told.
Mira shared, “Because there are so few images of Africa on any screen anywhere, and when there are, it’s usually – death, despair, dictators, beastiality. And so we created the school, because we have to make the dignity and the joy of everyday life in our street in Kampala, anywhere. You know, be specific. Be local. Be truthful. And be excellent. But it was such irony that despite my being surrounded by local stories for 12 years — we had 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.”
On Meeting Phiona
Tendo Nagenda, a Disney executive who I had the privilege of meeting last week, visited Mira Nair in Kampala when he was at a family reunion four years ago. He introduced Mira to Phiona’s story from the ESPN journal, about this child who sold corn in Katwe, who was on her way to being a chess prodigy.
She was completely “struck by the story” and wanted to meet her, which ironically took place in New York City. Mira Nair had the opportunity to meet both Phiona Mutesi and her mentor Robert Katende and had an instant connection.
From Mother to Mother
If there was one person Mira Nair needed to meet, it was Harriet, Phiona’s mother.
Mira shared with us, “Harriet took me just below where I lived. where she was evicted when her husband died. We spent the day just going from one place to another where she had been with her four kids, at abandoned church, the veranda of a little vendor stand, a shop somewhere, and 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, you know? And, of course, to have a house at the end of it made by her daughter’s earnings, I mean…”
We knew how she felt. As mothers we could not help but understand.
There’s a bond there between Mira and Harriet, though Harriet doesn’t speak a word of English. Mira told us, “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. She looked at the garden very quietly and I said, ‘I would love to come (she had got the new house by then) plant in 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’.”
As Mira shared that story, you couldn’t help feel the connection. Guess what? The next day Mira drove out to Harriet’s home and planted the garden.
To this day, whenever something blooms, Harriet texts a picture of it to Mira.
On Challenges of Filming
Mira shared, “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 of…I wanted to capture that sort of emphasis no matter what we don’t have, we will put forward something that is excellent.”
“So the great challenge was to capture that sense of 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.”
FUN FACT: Lupita’s clothing in the film was not made for her. All the costumes in the movie came from the actual second-hand market.
Mira Nair couldn’t help but chuckle as she shared that another sweet challenge was filming chess.
Mira stated, ” It’s really a challenge to film chess, because it’s a highly intellectual game. And it’s about strategizing and making moves, and how can I as a visual filmmaker, as a visualist, make chess interesting? 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.”
‘We filmed every game differently from the other. And that was a challenge, because there’s only so many things you can do with the chess board. But 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.”
Fortunately for her, she was familiar with chess. In fact, her son was competitive chess player. See? I told you, fate!
FUN FACT: The real Phiona Mutesi, taught Mira Nair chess. At times, Phiona would laugh because Mira was reckless and would just move the piece. Phiona would say to her, “Mira, you must consider the other side of the board.” One must see the movie to understand that how funny that really is!
The Impact of Filming on Katwe and Uganda
Because it is the right thing to do and because this was Mira’s home, it was important for her and Disney to pay attention to the impact of their filming.
Mira told us, “We ran a green set, an ecological set, which is unheard of there, because plastic is so awful. We turned everything into a recycled sort of heaven. We also worked with the community of Katwe. We called it the Legacy Project while we were shooting, which is all shot in Katwe and the real places anyway to ask what the community needed.”
“It was decided with the elders of the community that public toilets were the big thing. So, we have a project with Disney to build a whole series of public toilets in Katwe, just a small example. But then recently they had just purchased a building in Katwe to house permanently the Chess Academy. And then we have an educational fund for all the pioneers (kids) in the film – to university is the idea.”
She continued, “It is impossible for us to have done this thing and made this film and not care about what happens in the future, because the whole film is as much as it is about the present, it is about the future of our kids.”
I couldn’t agree more and am so proud of all they have done and plan to do.
Read my full Queen of Katwe movie review and find out what parents should know before they go.
Now let’s take a look at Queen of Katwe, shall we?
QUEEN OF KATWE opens in SELECT theaters NOW and everywhere on September 30th.
See what else I was up to last week in Hollywood (more coming this week):
- Lupita Nyong’o Interview
- Interview with Real Life Inspirations Phiona Mutesi and Robert Katende
- Red Carpet Premiere of Disney’s Queen of Katwe
- Interview with ONCE UPON A TIME Creators and Executive Producers
HELP A CHILD IN AFRICA
In the spirit of QUEEN OF KATWE, HSN is excited to partner with Soular Backpacks!
For every Soular Backpack purchased, a solar-powered backpack is given to a child in Africa to help study at night. Currently, children are using kerosene lamps, which can cause health complications. Soular Backpacks use natural energy from the sun during a child’s walk home from school. Make a difference today: http://gohsn.co/gh6NNz
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