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  • Articles by Sonali

    Film review: Queen of Katwe-London Film Festival 2016

    In amongst the extensive selection on offer at this year’s London Film Festival is the Queen of Katwe, a heart-warming film based on a true story of a young girl Phiona Mutesi who escapes the slums of Uganda, by learning to play chess. It's directed by Mira Nair, produced by Disney and has an all African cast. 10 year old Phiona, played by newcomer Madina Nalwanga, lives with her widowed mother (Lupita Nyong'o) and siblings in Katwe, a shanty town in Kampala.

    Phiona doesn’t go to school. Instead she has to sell maize to support her impoverished family. By chance she discovers a chess club for children in the same situation run by outreach worker Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) who works for the local mission. The children are given food and a gainful pastime, when they are taught to play chess. They acquire new skills. Many philosophical analogies are made between chess and life.

    We follow Phiona’s journey as she slowly progresses and eventually becomes a chess master. It's tough for Phiona from the outset. She often struggles to maintain her confidence against more experienced chess players. Here the plot plods along a bit, providing a detailed account of every hurdle she encounters on the way. After a while it feels quite episodic. On the other hand both lead actors (Nyong'o and Oyelowo) give engaging and welljudged performances, supported by the children from the club who add brightness and energy.

    A highlight is the depiction of Kampala; vibrant, colourful and buzzing with activity. Trade and commerce continue to thrive even in this poverty stricken environment. The film often seems like a fly-on-the wall documentary, giving an authentic snapshot of life in the shanty town, away from a Western gaze. Mira Nair lives in Kampala which might explain the homegrown viewpoint.

    This is also quite a gritty film for Disney, tackling some serious issues. Phiona’s mother is unable to pay the rent on their slum dwelling and they end up homeless. We see the social barriers faced by Phiona, due to her background, which are pronounced when she enters a chess competition against some of Kampala’s privileged school children.

    These barriers seem insurmountable until Robert Katende’s genius idea / humanitarian intervention takes shape. Phiona’s success in chess (she helped Uganda win Africa's International Children's Chess Tournament in 2009) resonates with school authorities. She eventually wins a school place funded by the government; which is a life changing result.

    A significant chunk of the film is spent watching Phiona compete in chess tournaments, revealing the intense sparring between competitors across a chessboard.  This is surprisingly compelling to watch, when the high level of tension is palpable.

    What’s even more surprising is that we were unaware of these remarkable events before the film’s release. The real-life protagonists (Phiona Mutesi, Robert Katende etc) are introduced in person during the end credits, exposing the human significance of this hopeful true story.

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