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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Siraj Syed reviews The Queen of Katwe: Chess champion comes from Ugandan slums

Siraj Syed reviews The Queen of Katwe: Chess champion comes from Ugandan slums

Madina Nalwanga, the Ugandan teenager who plays the titular role in The Queen of Katwe, was asked after the red carpet at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) what she would like to do next. She replied, “I want to go back to school. And I want to continue with acting and also dancing.” Madina’s native tongue is Luganda, and she had to work very hard to speak the English required for the film. Likewise, the debutant actress would have had to get familiar with the characteristics of the medium, dance being the closest she had come to performing. On the other hand, Mira Nair, the Orissa-born, Delhi-raised Uganda-settled Indian film-maker is too much of a veteran, and making a biopic on the incredible story of a chess prodigy who rose from the slums of the under-developed African nation to grab international headlines, should have proved a routine exercise. Sadly, there are too many wrong moves in the film that do no credit to the much-lauded maker.

It’s been a phased project. First we had an article on Phiona Mutesi, then a book, then a short documentary and finally a docu-feature. Writes Kathleen Edwards, on Amazon, “Phiona Mutesi is one of the best chess players on earth. At 11, she was her country's junior champion, at 15 a national champion. Soon after, she travelled to Russia to participate in the Chess Olympiad, the most prestigious event in the Chess world. Only in her teens, she sat across the board from experts several years older, yet she played with an intensity and instinct that had more experience players struggling to keep the upper hand - and not always succeeding.

Her command of the game at such a young age certainly had people talking. Certainly she must have the best of coaches, the best education, and the best backing to be as good as she is. Certainly the best chess players have the best pedigree. Certainly...not.

Phiona Mutesi is from Uganda, a country at the bottom of the pecking order of African nations. And she lives at the bottom of the pecking order of Uganda itself. She's a child of Katwe - one of the worst slums in the world.

The Queen of Katwe, by Tim Crothers, former Senior Sports writer at Sports Illustrated, is a gritty inspiration. Crothers introduces us to a culture where human life is cheap. Where life, moment to moment, is not guaranteed. Where a teen girl's goal is to give herself to a man, or more than one man, in order to secure food and shelter - and hopefully support for children, when she gets pregnant. But in a country rampant with AIDs, it's not uncommon for that male support to succumb to the disease and leave his offspring homeless and scraping for food. This was the life that Phiona was born into. A world of mind-numbing destitution and hopelessness.

But while Phiona and other children like her fought to survive in the squalor that is Katwe, there were people who were determined to bring hope. People like Robert Katende who grew up in Katwe and fought his way out. A man of strong faith and a passion, to mentor and love the kids who found their way to the Sports Outreach Mission (SIM) every day, to get a bowl of porridge and learn chess.

The Queen of Katwe is an important book. We tend to forget how most of the world lives. Phiona's story is a moving reminder that every life holds value, and we have the opportunity to influence the endgame.”

J.R. Caldwell, “My copy of The Queen of Katwe (pronounced kaat-way) is amazing. I have met both Phiona and Robert and had them sign the book. I have played chess with Phiona and (of course) she beat me. She speaks Lugandan. In her language, there is no word for chess. Phiona had an amazing talent for it and the main reason her mother let Phiona go to the chess program is that they were giving them free food. In Katwe, it is total devastation. children care for children and there could be 5 people on one mattress.”

Tendo Nagenda, Walt Disney Studios' senior creative executive and of Ugandan descent, developed the project, along with ESPN Films, into production. With executive approval from studio president Sean Bailey, Nagenda went to visit Mira Nair at her Ugandan home. Nair was captivated by the story, stating, "I have always been surrounded by these local stories but hadn’t done anything in Uganda since 1991. I love any story about people who make something from what appears to be nothing." Nair then invited screen-writer William Wheeler to come to Kampala to conduct interviews with the principal figures, as a foundation for a screenplay.

Wheeler studied in the Playwrights Horizon program at NYU, where he immersed himself in classical drama— something he emphatically recommends for aspiring screenwriters.

Upon graduation from NYU, Wheeler’s thesis script, The Prime Gig, carried him to the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters Lab, where he is now a mentor/teacher. Wheeler wrote The Hoax, for director Lasse Hallstrom and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, about Pakistan.

“That was a project that was driven by Mira, really. She had somehow gotten hold of a script I’d written many years earlier, and thought, maybe, I was the writer for Fundamentalist. She sent me the book to see what I thought. We met. We hit it off. I first came on that project to just help develop it a little from the book it was based on, into this feature film, but it turned into almost two years. The script Mira read was called Bodyguard of Lies. It was a World War II spy piece about this real guy, a double agent, Juan Pujol. I wrote that in, say, 2002. She read it 10 years later!” She came back to Wheeler for The Queen of Katwe.

“I’m a white dude. I don’t really play chess. So even I wasn’t sure I was the right guy, but I was desperately curious and interested to try. I spent a couple of weeks hanging out with the real-life Phiona and Robert and Harriet, and I got more and more comfortable with the cultural differences, which are rarely insurmountable.”

(Wheeler’s mother was a Philadelphia news reporter on television).

(Culled from Writers Guild of America)

Wheeler’s work is undistinguished. While chess and poverty had to be the centrepieces, he might have erred in choosing which parts of the biography to leave out and which to focus on. Also, maybe he could have been able to sustain interest had he chosen to fictionalise the duller parts of the narrative. As it stands, every single trope found in sports biopics in the last 40 years finds place here, with the exception of sabotage and pure villainy. Dialogue is stilted and often unnatural. Phiona’s sister is called Night, and this is not registered at all. Too many pages in the screenplay are allotted to the maize-selling that is Phiona’s daily chore. The varying length of her is cleverly well-explained. Commendably, chess does not over-shadow the human drama.

Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala, Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love, Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake) now 60, is married to Mahmood Mamdani, a Ugandan (though Bombay-born), for 25 years, and this assignment should have been after her heart. She has delineated female characters with aplomb in many a Mirabai production. A host of things have gone wrong, though. Performances are way below par and often stagey in the first half hour, background music is uneven throughout—too loud in places, missing where it would have helped and over-done where it is not required. Somewhere in the middle, perhaps after an acting workshop, the actors awake and the script gives you a few emotional twists. Nair has not let the fact that her heroine is a great dancer influence her into adding non-essential dances in the story. One little gig suffices.

Madina Nalwanga as Phiona Mutesi is a delight, and one reason why you could watch the film. The casting search for ‘Phiona’ took six months, with nearly 700 girls auditioned. 15-year-old Ugandan dancer Madina in a community dance class. Said Nalwanga, “Lupita, she really helped me, like, to get into the character all the time. I could see her getting ready to be the character and then I copied her. I would copy everything that she does, but in a silent way because I never wanted her to see me doing what she was doing. ... We had tough scenes whereby we have to cry. And it was kind of hard to me to cry, but I saw her getting ready — she was exercising all the time.”

Lupita is of course Nyong'o, who plays Phiona’s mother. “I was loosening my jaw, like you know, with my hands. ... She came up to me and she asked me what I was doing and why, and I told her. I was loosening my jaw. ... Sometimes when you're nervous or something like that, 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. Very sweet.” Lupita (12 Years a Slave, Star Wars) is reason number 2 why you could watch the film. She and Madina almost rescue the film, and the performances must be rated far above the merits of the film itself. David Oyelowo as Robert Katende Rise of the (Planet of the Apes, Jack Reacher, Interstellar) gets into his own as the film progresses.

Others in the cast are Martin Kabanza as Mugabi Brian, Taryn Kyaze as Night, Ivan Jacobo as Young Richard, Nicolas Levesque as Older Richard, Ronald Ssemaganda as Ivan

Ethan Nazario Lubega as Benjamin, Nikita Waligwa as Gloria, Edgar Kanyike as Joseph and Esther Tebandeke as Sara Katende.

If you do see the film, stay back for the end credits roll.

Rating: **


Short documentary by ESPN:

Excerpt from the prologue of the book

She wins the decisive game, but she has no idea what it means.

Nobody has told her what’s at stake, so she just plays, like she

always does. She has no idea she has qualified to compete at the

Olympiad. No idea what the Olympiad is. No idea that her qualifying

means that in a few months she will fly to the city of Khanty-Mansiysk

in remote central Russia. No idea where Russia even is. When she learns

all of this, she asks only one question: “Is it cold there?”

She travels to the Olympiad with nine teammates, all of them a

decade older, in their twenties, and even though she has known many

of them for a while and journeys by their side for 27 hours across the

globe to Siberia, none of her teammates really have any idea where

she is from or where she aspires to go, because Phiona Mutesi is from

someplace where girls like her don’t talk about that.

19th sept. 2010

Dear mum,

I went to the airport. I was very happy to go to the airport. this was

only my second time to leave my home. When I riched to the airport I was

some how scared because I was going to play the best chess players in the

world. So I waved to my friends and my brothers. Some of them cried

because they were going to miss me and I had to go. so they wished me

agood luck. They told me that they will pray for me. So we board on europlane

to go from Uganda to Kenya. The Europlane flew up the sky. I saw

clouds looking niece. This time I thought that I was may be in heaven. I

asked God to protect me. because who am I to fly to the europlane. so it

was Gods power. We riched in kenya very well. I was very tired and they

gave me acake it was like abread. I had never tested that before but it was

very sweat and I liked it.

When we boad an europlane to Dubai it was very big. So they served

us very many eats. I was very hungry. I prayed to God to protect us very

well. and he did so. and we riched very well. What I surprised of people

which I went with. They were like my parents. they treated me well and

my coach treating me as if I was his babby. What I never expected before.

That was my first day.

When we riched in Dubai things were different. every was on his

own. After then we board the last europlane to take us in Roncha. we

prayed so that we rich well. An europlane flew. This time we were along

distance from the ground. I think this time I was nearly to tutch on

heaven. the clouds were looking niece. then they served me food which I

not seen and I was not used to that food. I felt bad. wanted to vomite. So

we riched very well. We were welcomed at the airport.

Then they gave us rooms.

The opening ceremony at the 2010 Chess Olympiad takes place

in an ice arena. Phiona has never seen ice. There are lasers and woolly

mammoths and dancers inside bubbles and people costumed as chess

pieces, queens and bishops and pawns, marching around on a giant

chessboard atop the ice. Phiona watches it all unfold with her hands

cupping her cheeks as if in a wonderland. She asks if this happens every

night in this place and she is told, no, that the arena normally serves as

a home for hockey, concerts, the circus. Phiona has never heard of any

of those things.

Queen of Katwe Sports Outreach Mission (SOM)

The Chess Academy and Mentoring Center began in the slums of Kampala, Uganda when SOM soccer coach, Robert Katende, noticed children watching from the sidelines of soccer matches he had organized. Robert started with only five children and now has over 300 who gather daily across five separate slum locations.


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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