Having seen Queen of Katwe the night before, I was super excited to get to meet the amazing director of such a fantastic movie. Director Mira Nair is so full of energy. She came in the room and she was so colorful and vibrant. All smiles the whole time. I could totally see just sitting down for a meal with her or meeting her for a coffee. She was just so down to earth. We immediately asked her about how she got involved with Queen of Katwe.
Mira Nair – I’ve been living in Kampala now 27 years ever since I made “Mississippi Masala” there in 1989. I started my life there, fell in love, had a son, planted gardens, and created a film school called Maisha. The slogan of Maisha is if we don’t tell our own stories, no one will. Because there are so few images of Africa on any screen and when there are it’s usually death, despair, dictators, we created the school because we have to make the dignity and the joy of everyday life in our street in Kampala, everywhere. But it was such irony that despite my being surrounded by local stores for 12 years that this story of Phiona Mutesi, who lived 15 minutes from home, I did not know about.
A young man from this building, Tendo Nagenda, who is Ugandan, came to see me in my garden in Kampala when he was at a family reunion about four years ago. He showed me this little article about Phiona in the ESPN journal about this child who sold corn in Katwe who is now heading to become a chess prodigy and going to the Olympiad in Russia. I was completely struck by the story and I said, I’d love to meet Phiona.
Then I met Harriet who took me just below where i lived, where she was evicted when her husband died. We spent the day going from one place to another where she had been with her four kids– in an abandoned church, the veranda of a little vendor stand, a shop somewhere, finally a little room. When I saw the trajectory of the actual struggle, the homelessness, the struggle and her fierceness to keep her family together against absolutely every odd there was, it was deeply moving.
She invites all the kids who go to the chess school to her house once a year for dinner. She invited Phiona and her mother Harriet. Mira told us that she is very into gardening. She creates her own plants, she has tree nurseries. So she has this greenhouse and Harriet looked at all of her plants quietly so Mira offered to come plant some flowers in her garden (Phiona was able to buy her mom a house with the money she received). Harriet told her that since she has seen her garden that she would allow her to come do her garden. She is very dignified that way. So she loaded up her truck with 80 plants and in one day she had planted Harriet a garden. And Mira also told us that someone had gifted Harriet a smartphone and now every time a flower blooms she sends Mira a picture. So they have this relationship based on the flowers.
She told us chess was kind of hard to film. Besides wanting to make sure everything looked right (every competition scene the actual moves that were performed by the players were performed in the movie) its kind of boring to people who maybe don’t play chess. She said, “it’s a highly intellectual game and it’s about strategizing and making moves. So how can I as a visual filmmaker make chess interesting?…That was a challenge because there’s only so many things you can do with a chess board.” And she mentiond her son is a competitive chess player but she didnt know much about the game. Phiona actually taught her how to play.
Mira Nair – So, I was part of the chess circle, but I didn’t really know chess well. I understood it, but I didn’t really play it. Phiona Mutesi, the real Phiona, taught me chess, prior to the shooting. She would just laugh at me, because I was reckless and I would want to move the piece. Mira, you must consider the other side of the board. I would just write down stuff she said. I said that’s a great line, Phiona. You know if we all considered the other side of the world it would make life work. So, I used to write down what she would say, but it comes out of her mouth in the movie if you notice it. She would say, are you focusing on the game or on your film? I said the film.
Having seen the movie and knowing that most of the cast in the movie were people from the real life Katwe, we really wanted to know how the movie had helped them. Had it made their lives better? How has the shooting of the film impact the people of Queen of Katwe and Kampala? When people think of Uganda, they don’t see the positive. So how has this whole filming impacted them?
Mira Nair – Well, you know, we were waiting with our eyes for sure. One is because it is my home. That is where I live. I’m not gonna run away, you know. We have been doing several things. One is we ran a green set, an ecological set, which is unheard of there, because plastic is so awful. So, we threw the shooting of it, 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 toilets, public toilets were the big thing. We have a project with Disney to build a whole series of public toilets in Katwe, just a small example. Then recently they had just purchased land and a building in Katwe to house permanently the Chess Academy which has just gone through happened. And then we have a educational fund for all the pioneers in the film to university is the idea. That’s a very complicated and very excellent endeavor, because, like in the film, like in life, education is the cornerstone. In Kampala, it’s a big emphasis. People knock on your door every day for school fees, you know, because whatever it is you must go to school. So, the education of our kids is vital. Lastly, in our film school, Maisha, which is now become a community interdisciplinary school for the community we are building the last phase of the physical school, hopefully with Disney’s help, which creates a open-air community theater and audio visual library, because that is what is not there. I mean there are no libraries. There are no books. There’s no — certainly no visual situation. So that is what I’m appealing for. Because 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.
That’s always amazing to me when people can give back to their homes. I love that she said she wasn’t going to run away.
After she took some photos with us, we got a small surprise. Her son, Young Cardamom, & HAB have a song in the movie, #1 Spice. Young Cardamom came in to see us! It is a very fun and catchy song. You will find yourself singing it long after the movie is over. You can actually order it on Amazon now or watch it on Youtube!