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Interview: Mira Nair discusses QUEEN OF KATWE

Acclaimed director Mira Nair (The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding) is back with the uplifting and inspiring Disney film Queen of Katwe. The film recounts the true story of Ugandan Phiona Mutesi, a young chess phenom who, despite the setbacks her gender, race, and impoverished upbringing presented her, rose to become one of the youngest chess champions in Africa.

As part of an exclusive group of local as well as international journalists, we were lucky to get the opportunity to sit down with Nair following the film’s well received gala recently at the Toronto International Film Festival. The following were our conversation highlights.

What was the main challenge in making the film? 

Mira Nair: It was the beauty of the challenge, really, in being able to make this tale about a place that I live in. I live in Kampala, Uganda for the last almost thirty years and I see the every day dignity and abject struggle but also embrace of life around me and I’ve never seen that on screen. First it was the beauty of the challenge to consult what I know about that way of life, living and culture, and the streets, style, slang and humor and distill it into this remarkable true story of Phiona, who refused to accept that she must remain in the little place that she’s supposed to be born into. That was wonderful – to be able to be in my front yard and know those places so well and take you into that world that was utterly truthful but also full of vibrancy. A place where you might go to sleep hungry but you’ll dance before going to sleep. I love that embrace of life!

For me, it was vital to present, firstly, the prismatic view of the world. It’s not just one person alone saying, “I’m going to make it, baby!”. It is not that American individualism. It takes a village to understand a young girl. To have a teacher like Robert Katende who sees in Phiona this intelligence but who also harnesses it until she exceeds him. And of course her Mother, who does not want any of her children disappointed in having the dreams that she had that she did not achieve. So Phiona teachers her own Mother that it’s possible to dream but through a lot of complexity. That scene is my own personal scene where Harriet goes to sell her gown. For two reasons I made that scene: 1. That it’s about the promise of womanhood. It’s about Harriet who is so young, she had her child at 15! And now she’s in a place where she has to put all that aside, her own womanhood, her own promise, her own ability to be with a man, because it is the time in her life where she has to ensure that her children are going to be okay. I love the fact that we show that promise because otherwise it would just be Harriet, chin down, telling them to work. I mean it just doesn’t work like that. It’s all these things that make a person.

It’s very rare to see a wide release like this, especially a Disney release, showing impoverished people and the dignity their everyday lives hold. What kind of impact do you expect a film like this to make? 

MN: Oh I hope a great impact! The film has great relatability. Phiona is misunderstood by even her own Mother-that’s how we’ve all grown up. The conditions of her growing up in Katwe, in a way it teaches us how to live. Like the Coach teaches her-you need to focus on what you do have and not on what you do not have. So if you have half a cup of water in a basin you’ll still wash your hair and you will still come out completely smart because that’s the fact of it. And that’s just wonderful. So I hope people will see it and look at the other side of the world and not see something foreign. I mean it is a new world because people have not seen the realism of their struggle and their poverty but also the vibrancy of it. I think if it can inspire some people to see that they don’t need saviors, they can look into themselves and see that they can do it on their own. Disney is so passionate about the film, even though it’s such a radical step for them. Not once did they ask me to sanitize the film. They actually embraced the truth that I was giving them because the truth was not a despairing, suffering portrait. It was you’ve got a rope, okay let’s do hopscotch. We’ve never really seen the everyday dignity and everyday struggles. This is a real tapestry of human life that you see on screen.

Will people in Uganda get to see the film?

MN: There are many movie theatres there. It used to be a culture of movie shacks, where you basically see movies on a television set inside a shack. That was until almost seven years ago. Then unfortunately malls have started sprouting, I mean very fancy ones. And now we have cineplexes. There are ten movie theatres in Kampala alone. Our school is doing a program of bringing 1000 school kids to the movie theatre to see Queen of Katwe because I want them to see it in a proper theatre. It’s quite interesting, someone is doing a test to see if kids who see Queen of Katwe do better in their exams the following month.


Queen of Katwe is currently playing in theatres everywhere.

Leora Heilbronn

Leora Heilbronn is a Toronto based film aficionado who has a weakness for musicals and violent action flicks. She can often be spotted reading a wide range of literature or listening to show tunes.