Phiona Mutesi used to forage for food in the impoverished slums of Kampala. On Saturday she attended a Disney movie premiere about her life in the Ugandan capital.
What happened in between is that Mutesi became a chess champion and the resulting film “Queen of Katwe” is a real-life tale of triumph over adversity.
“It was so emotional to see the film,” the 20-year-old Mutesi said at the Saturday night Ugandan premiere of the movie.
“Sometimes people think that it’s not real life but what they show in (Queen of) Katwe is true. The foods, the people, children working to sell corn on the street, it’s all true.”
Authenticity is very important to the film’s renowned director Mira Nair.
“Uganda has been my home for 37 years. I’ve been waiting to distill the vibrancy, colour, style and the life of Kampala all this time,” said Indian-born Nair.
“Authenticity has always been a treasure to me and this film is pure Uganda. The reaction from audiences has been absolutely rapturous: laughing, sobbing, dancing and crying.”
The film, which had its global premiere at last month’s Toronto Film Festival, tells the story of Mutesi, who escaped her life as a vegetable hawker when she revealed, at the age of nine, a remarkable talent for chess at an outreach programme in a poverty-stricken Kampala slum of Katwe.
“Queen of Katwe” is a tale of resilience, learning and strong women who overcome the odds.
“Today my heart is exploding with happiness at bringing the film home.” Nair enthused.
– ‘Compassion and empathy’ –
Academy award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o plays Mutesi’s mother Harriet, a widow trying to do the best for her children amid relentless hardship.
“It’s exciting to be back in Uganda to share the film with its home,” the Kenyan actress said at the Ugandan premiere of the new film.
“I can’t wait to watch it with the local cast. Mira tells this story from the inside out with compassion and empathy for the people of Katwe.”
Phiona Mutesi, portrayed in the film by 16-year-old Madina Nalwanga in her first screen role, is now a chess champion who competes internationally.
The game was only introduced in Uganda in the 1970s by foreign doctors and was still seen as a pursuit only for the rich.
“I like chess because it involves planning,” Mutesi said last year. “If you don’t plan, you will end up with your life so bad.”
“Queen of Katwe” is based on a book of the same name about Mutesi by American writer Tim Crothers.
It was shot in Uganda and South Africa.