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Friday, August 18, 2017

Shooting in Katwe helped me get in character — Lupita Nyong’o

The women of Queen of Katwe Lupita, Madina Nalwanga and director Mira Nair
The women of Queen of Katwe Lupita, Madina Nalwanga and director Mira Nair

Ugandans live a life that’s befitting of a movie. They are not scared of losing, they can live a high life on less than a dollar, it’s that country where eggs rolled in a chapati were declared a tourist attraction and yes, that place where cinema establishments have a huge competitor in pirates. Not that Nairobi, Mombasa or Nakuru don’t have pirates; in Uganda, these are legal businesses run by foreign investors and FYI, they pay taxes!

Thus there’s never a time when a Hollywood film is so new for movie lovers in Kampala. People will get a film when they want it and at the exact time they need it. For instance, there have been cases of films like X-Men Apocalypse where pirates were selling an editor’s copy for a final. You should have seen the faces of those Ugandans when they reached home and realised that Wolverine’s blades were missing and explosions were only marked by red dots.

Yet, even when Ugandans love Hollywood’s recycle bin, they barely follow what Hollywood is cooking. In fact, in the past 10 years, Ugandans have only cared thrice: for the Kampala premiere of The Last King of Scotland, which happened days before the Oscars and many days after the downtown Kampala had received the ‘clear copy’ of the same film; for the release of Fast and Furious 7, because many felt it was their national duty to connect with the global fans of Paul Walker; and most recently, for Queen of Katwe, because of obvious reasons — it was entirely done in Katwe, one of Kampala’s biggest slums.

Prior to the premier, DVDs of Queen of Katwe were on sale in the different pirate shops in Kampala for weeks. Only problem was that these copies only had compiled teaser clips and the trailer for the film.

Starring Academy Award-winning Kenyan-Mexican actress Lupita Nyong’o, who turned 34 on Thursday, and David Oyelowo, the film had its plush African premiere at Uganda’s Century Cinemax in Kampala on October 1 last year.


The red-carpet event, attended by the entire cast, director and the real-life heroes who inspired the story, Phiona Mutesi and Robert Katende, got Kampala on its toes. Many film lovers were eager to attend but sadly it was an invite-only event. But people still showed up to at least grab a selfie with the Kenyan actress they mostly prefer to call neighbour and Madina Nalwanga who, until December, many preferred to refer to as ‘our’daughter. That didn’t happen. The best they could get was Cord leader Raila Odinga, Larry Madowo (dude was all over Kampala) and a few Ugandan dignitaries.

Talking to The Star, the actress said she was happy the film was screening in Uganda, where most incidents in the movie happened. “This film is special, being about a young girl (Phiona) who, regardless of her hardships, didn’t stop to dream of bigger things (success in chess).”

Queen of Katwe is a brilliant film. Lupita, much as she doesn’t have a close resemblance to Harriet Nakku, Mutesi’s mother whom she embodies on screen, did a brilliant job. She tried her best to master the Ganda culture that most Kenyans make fun of, especially the kneeling.

Ugandans actually loved Lupita’s Nakku. When the film opened in theatres a week later, Kampala socialites were screaming “Oscar” as the credits rolled. It was fun watching city blondies try their hands on something challenging — debating Lupita’s chances with the Academy. “She has won it before and she’s black, they will nominate her because they are afraid of us calling them racists,” reasoned one. The honours for Best Actress, though, went to Emma Stone for her role in La La Land during the Oscars last Sunday.

Lupita says she had to learn a lot from her on-screen daughter Madina Nalwanga (Mutesi) before they could start shooting. “The Baganda have an elaborate greeting culture, which I had to pick up because as Harriet, I’m expected to know these things. Then I had to act with baby Ivan. He didn’t trust me at all, yet in the film, he had to be on my lap all the time. Thus to connect with him, I knew I had to pick up some Luganda.”

But much of this had happened almost three weeks before production, at Speke Resort Munyonyo, the hotel where the cast was residing. Lupita had been introduced to Nalwanga, Ivan (whose real mother had abandoned him for a job in the Emirates), Martin Kibanza and Taryn Kyaze as her onscreen family.

But it was Kibanza, Ivan and Nalwanga that she had to bond with more. She shared a lot of screen time with the three and besides, Kyaze portrayed Harriet’s rebellious daughter Night. They were barely on the same page since the teenager had found love with boda boda rider Theo, portrayed by Ugandan artiste Maurice Kirya.


Nalwanga says on being introduced to the Kenyan actress, she called her mum and, to her surprise, she said: “I had no idea who she was. In fact, I did my research after we had met.” (Nalwanga hails from a relatively disadvantaged family. In fact, Queen of Katwe was the second film she watched in a modern cinema, after being taken to watch Jurassic Park by Oyelowo in South Africa.)

Lupita says it was after this meeting that she got to know Nalwanga’s story wasn’t that different from the Phiona she was going to portray in the film. But to learn how to be her mother, she asked her to take her through her day, which saw them go to the market, buy food and prepare it together as a family.

“She taught me how to make matooke from scratch and dodo (greens), though I failed with posho,” she says, adding that these activities helped them break the ice and forge a relationship that has grown off-screen.

Nalwanga adds that Lupita helped her with acting, especially getting into character, though most of the things she learnt from the Hollywood actress, Nalwanga did secretly.

“I was loosening my jaw, with my hands. She came up to me and asked what I was doing and why, and I told her. Sometimes when you’re nervous, your jaw gets caught up and then you can’t really enunciate. Then she walked away, and then shortly after that I walked by the set when she was doing a scene without me and between takes, she was loosening her jaw,” Lupita tells one of the interviewers.

But above everything, Lupita and Oyelowo seem to agree that shooting the film in Uganda did make a huge difference, since the natural environment made it easy for them to channel the characters they were trying to portray.

“There’s nothing that beats working in the actual space. Shooting in studios makes you use your mind more than you need to,” Oyelewo says.

Almost in support of the same, Lupita adds that. “Shooting in Katwe, the community had its life going on. One time during a shoot, a goat came from nowhere and got into frame. Mira didn’t say cut and we just went on. Shooting on location allowed us to experience life in that place, and most of the times helped me imagine what Harriet would have done in such situations.”


Queen of Katwe performed miserably in cinemas in the US. In fact, it is strongly believed that this could have hurt its chances with the Academy, but the film was a success in Uganda.

For instance, it has been the first film to screen at the same time in all the six cinemas scattered in the different parts of Kampala. And unlike the usual screenings where films stay for a maximum of three weeks, Queen of Katwe screened for more than a month in all.

In Century Cinemax, Kampala’s most frequented cinema, Queen of Katwe was screened for nine weeks with three special screenings that included a charity fundraiser for a cancer patient and a film tourism screening and cocktail attended by dignitaries from the Tourism ministry.

Life has changed for coach Robert Katende. Since his character was brought to life by Oyelowo, his Sports Outreach Foundation has grown bigger, with its headquarters in Lynchburg, Virginia.

“The number of children who want to play chess has doubled. In fact, the only problem is that many of them want to play like Phiona in a very short time.”

Katende notes that since the film came out, the number of non-Ugandans asking him about Katwe when he travels have increased and he hopes it will become a tourism attraction when TheHome of Queen of Katwe, a memorabilia site they are fundraising for, is finally put up.

Last year, at the annual Ugandans Diaspora Social Networking Gala at Serena Hotel in Kampala, Mutesi and Katende were honoured with two lifetime achievement awards for their role in marketing Uganda abroad and changing lives.

Besides the real-life heroes, even those who portrayed them have gone on to thrive in different ways. Kabanza says before the film, boys at the field he used to play football at would segregate them because they were disadvantaged; “When I went back, everyone wanted to play with me.”

At the end of last year, Nalwanga was nominated for the Best Outstanding Actress at the NAACP Image Awards and Black Reel Awards and Best Young Performer at the Critics’ Choice Awards, among others.

However, she has also caught the attention of the media thanks to whoever is messing up with her outfit selection. At the Kampala premiere of Queen of Katwe, she was dressed in an oversized Gomesi (Ganda traditional wear), and at HiPipo Awards, as she received a special recognition award, she was dressed in a beautiful dress which she decided to cover with a yellow cloak that made her look like a sinner-turned-nun.

Other cast members have gone on to land local roles and others have gone on to impress in theatre, Joanita Bewulira was impressive in local film Rain, while Esther Tebandake (who played Sarah Katende) is directing a theatre musical, only months after staging her one-man show, Conversations With My Mother.


Mira Nair, the film director, says its her love of telling stories of people who come from nothing that drove her to tell the Queen of Katwe story. “Phiona’s story is remarkably inspiring but also deeply true, and I always love stories of people who are considered marginal to any society who want to break in but break in with the grit of their own spirit.”

Mira, who considers Uganda her home for the past 25 years, said having worked with Lupita when she was an intern at her Maisha Film Lab in 2006, when she looked at the final script for Queen of Katwe, the Kenyan actress was the first person that came to her mind. Luckily for her, Lupita took the part after reading less than five pages of the script.

“The characters were layered and complex. That it was centered on a girl, a young girl from a small place with a big dream, that’s something I really wanted to be a part of. It’s not often that we get to see this perspective in Africa, an uplifting story, not one we are feeling pity for any of the people we encounter. Especially playing Harriet, at that point, nothing like this had crossed my table. Nobody was asking me to play a mother of five.”

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