From slum girl to chess champ

Teenager Madina Nalwanga (above) plays Phiona Mutesi in Queen Of Katwe.
Teenager Madina Nalwanga (above) plays Phiona Mutesi in Queen Of Katwe.PHOTO: WALT DISNEY PICTURES
Teenager Madina Nalwanga plays Phiona Mutesi (above) in Queen Of Katwe.
Teenager Madina Nalwanga plays Phiona Mutesi (above) in Queen Of Katwe.PHOTO: REUTERS

Queen Of Katwe is inspired by a real story of a vegetable hawker in Uganda who showed a talent for chess

KAMPALA • Phiona Mutesi used to forage for food in the impoverished slums of Kampala.

Last 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."

It was so emotional to see the film. 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.

PHIONA MUTESI, on the movie Queen Of Katwe, which is based on a book of the same title about her

Authenticity is important to the film's renowned director Mira Nair.

"Uganda has been my home for 37 years. I've been waiting to distil the vibrancy, colour, style and the life of Kampala all this time," said India-born Nair, who won the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival for 2001's Monsoon Wedding.

"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 said.

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."

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 introduced in Uganda only 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 title about Mutesi by American writer Tim Crothers. It was shot in Uganda and South Africa.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 03, 2016, with the headline 'From slum girl to chess champ'. Print Edition | Subscribe