When one settles into a cinema seat, we are frequently transported to another place. Whether that place is ephemeral, as Arrival recently did with it’s much-needed humanistic idealism after a particularly tumultuous year; or physical, offering an immersive sensory experience; the four walls of a cinema offer a unique kind of escapism. But how often is one treated to something unseen in Australian cinemas, a part of the world and a way of viewing it that typically completely escapes the mainstream consciousness? In the wondrous moment that that happens, it’s hard to not be in utter awe.
Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Mississippi Masala)’s biographical film Queen of Katwe (out now around Australia) is one such creation, an irresistibly lush and passionate labour of love that is a joy to behold. It’s a true-life story where no dream is too big for a world, set in a corner of the world and created people rarely allowed to speak on screen. The film’s sincerity and assured triumphant end may make for a film packaged like one we’ve seen many times before. Produced by Disney, it even rings of a time in the early 2000s when entertaining live action films that could be enjoyed by both young and old bolstered the catalogue. Despite its Hollywood trappings, it quickly asserts its individuality. The all-too-familiar Disney logo appears before any of the film has played, but instead of an orchestra it’s accompanied by drums and euphoric voices creating their own rhythm. And that’s before Nair unfurls her vibrant tapestry.
Queen of Katwe’s world is far from blissful or ideal. Nair, a resident of Kampala and founder of the non-profit Maisha Film Lab, offers a lived in view of the tough but alive world; instead of languishing in a depiction that paints the region as crippled and helpless. The titular queen is not one of inherited titles and glamour, but of work. Phiona Mutesi (charismatic newcomer Madina Nalwanga), is a child in the Kampala slum of Katwe, selling maize on the streets to help support her family. She notices that her brother, her partner in her daily work, begins to sneak off during the day, so she follows him. Maybe there will be food, or something else. She finds a chess club run out of another shack in the slum, lead by local Robert Katende (David Oyelowo, who continues to be an irresistible presence). Robert doesn’t just teach chess to his young charges as a game, but rather a way of looking at life, as a practice for enduring hardship. The making of a plan of action to win a game is akin to plotting one’s next move when faced with challenges. When she fights the other children for teasing her, she’s not scolded, but instead understood. “This is a place for fighters,” Robert says.
Chess, as Nair tells us, is a game where the queen has the power. The queen dominates the board and holds the fate of the game. Nair also reminds us that the smallest, most insignificant piece has the power of becoming the queen too, but it takes perseverance. But Phiona is a fighter, raised by another – the recently widowed Harriet (the electric Lupita Nyong’o, who graduated from Maisha and interned at Nair’s production company) who keeps the family afloat through tragedy and disaster by selling food on the streets. She’s fiercely protective of her children, and when she discovers they’re perhaps being taught how to play games by a stranger instead of working, she’s initially skeptical – is he introducing them to gambling that will only make their lives even unhappier? When Phiona finds monumental success at tournaments far and wide and returns home having stayed in hotels and tried new foods, she’s proud but also concerned, a balance perfectly played by Nyong’o – if she gets a taste of possibilities beyond of Katwe, will she ever be at home anywhere?
Robert initially tells Phiona that she belongs “where you believe you belong”, which suggests that her true story is to be found outside of Katwe, away from her family and experiences that defined her. But when Phiona and the rest of her teammates, a rambunctious bunch dubbed The Pioneers that round out the film’s stellar cast, venture to some of Uganda’s poshest schools, they don’t fit. One of the film’s most beautifully composed scenes features one of the youngest Pioneers hanging back from the rest of the group when they arrive, silhouetted through a doorway as he watches students play cricket on a lush green lawn. But to be there is to be removed from one’s own history, and through chess the idea of belonging somewhere else changes to actually belonging here. It’s uttered in the middle of the climactic match, all of which are shot with heart-pounding excitement by Sean Bobbitt, a reassurance at the moment it’s most needed. These lessons and personal discoveries have the potential to be overbearing, but Nair’s direction and Nalwanga’s performance is confident and earnest to instead make them beautiful and moving.
But take this central need to belong in one’s history a step further. Maisha Film Lab’s motto is “if we don’t tell our stories, no one else will”. Permeating the energy of Katwe is the basic need to just tell the story, and for the voices telling it to be the ones for whom it is their story too. Look at the credits, and one will see that the crew was predominantly local to where the film was shot on location in Kampala, bringing the sights and sounds and life to the city. It’s a passion and personality that makes it all the more moving. The film hums with not only the weight of Phiona’s story coming to life, but also the idea that if Nair, a tireless advocate for diversity in the film industry, turned her camera down the next street, another remarkable story would reveal itself.
The fact that Katwe it exists at all, yet in the intimate form it does, is a wonder. But films like this shouldn’t need to be dubbed miraculous manifestations of a perfect storm of filmmaking, soon forgotten instead of kickstarting more films like it. When i saw it after much anticipation at the Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival, I was treated to one of the best audience responses I’ve seen this year. There were tears, laughter, and applause. To any outsider, one might’ve thought it was because of dance or football, something more kinetic and dare I say conventional. One would certainly not think of chess, and one would certainly not guess a film like Katwe. This is a world, and such a vibrant way of showing it, that so rarely makes it onto a moderate number of screens in Australia. As I witnessed the ovations at a moment of victory and the atmosphere of pure thrill, the types of unashamed reactions that are sadly few and far between at the cinema, I had to ask – why is this still counted as a rare commodity? See this, in the hope that, one day, it will no longer be.