On Friday, Oct. 20, acclaimed director and lmmaker Mira Nair visited campus as a guest of the International Symposium on Education and Gender Equality, which was presented by the Suzy Newhouse Center for Humanities, Sciences Po and the Consulate General of France in Boston. She discussed the Oct. 20 screening of her lm “Queen of Katwe” in Collins Cinema. In addition to the lm that was screened, Nair made mention of other notable lms including “Monsoon Wedding,” “The Namesake,” “Mississippi Masala,” “Vanity Fair” and “Salaam Bombay!” A question and answer session followed the 124-minute screening of the lm.
The lm is based on the real life of Ugandan chess champion Phiona Mutesi, who discovers her love of chess through Robert Katende, a missionary who teaches the local children to play. Set in Kampala, Uganda, Mutesi’s success is astonishing as she manages hunger, lack of home stability, womanhood and illiteracy all while competing and defeating opponents in competitive chess tournaments and at the young age of 11. But her accomplishments are not without setbacks. Mutesi’s obstacles start starting important conversations about the burdening cycle of poverty and the instability that comes along with it. A costly injury to her brother leaves her and her family on the streets, forcing Mutesi to quit chess and focus on selling maize to earn money. Katende urges Mutesi to continue to pursue her abilities, and after he convinces her mother of Mutesi’s gift, she goes on to compete and win international acclaim.
“Queen of Katwe” is a an emotional rollercoaster to say the least. The cast includes Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’O playing Phiona’s mother, British-Nigerian actor David Oyelowo portraying the chess coach and community dance performers playing the roles of young Ugandan children.
“Queen of Katwe” is a story of perseverance, failure, passion for learning, uncertainty and community. It is through
the collaborative efforts of the Ugandanvillage that Mutesi and her teammates are able to travel and compete in chess tournaments. Katende also stresses the importance of persisting after failure. “Losing does not make you a failure,” he tells Mutesi, prompting her to find motivation to continue to compete after a loss. In addition, the lm deals with familial sacrifices: Mutesi’s mother must eventually let go of her fear that after being exposed to a new, seemingly better life Phiona will be interested only in the pursuit of only material things. Phiona’s story is a compelling narrative that depicts the raw emotional tribulations of a young girl in poverty and how, through education and a passion for learning, she is able to triumph.
Following the screening, Suzy Newhouse Center Director and French and francophone studies Professor Anjali Prabhu introduced Nair and began the discussion of “Queen of Katwe” and Nair’s career as a lmmaker. Questions were later prompted by audience members, generating important dialogue surrounding diversity, girls’ education and the importance of storytelling.
Born and raised in Rourkela, India, Nair is an Indian-American lmmaker who holds international residences in Uganda, India and New York. She attributes to her dedication to telling unique stories in her films to her multinational identity.
After studying sociology at Delhi University, she left India at the age of 19 to pursue higher education at Harvard University, where she originally studied acting before becoming a filmmaker. She noted the frustration she felt about the individualistic quality of theater and recollected that “ films was a more powerful and populist tool” to find ways to tell stories.
Nair went on to assert that diversity in storytelling is critical not only to her personal convictions but also inspiring future generations of filmmakers. She recalled her first experience seeing a lm by an Indian filmmaker: “Nothing is more powerful than seeing your context, your story on the screen.”
When asked about her background in sociology and how that adds to her prowess as a director, Nair suggested that she was attracted to filmmaking as a medium to study society. Speaking about documentary films, she noted “the truth is stronger than fiction” in its rawness, and despite the infuriating and unequal nature of life, “the will to live is powerful.”
Nair also responded to questions about how she modulates controversial issues into her feel-good films such as “Queen of Katwe” and how she finds her own voice. She made a point to mention that aspiring filmmakers should not be confused by the temptation of the lm industry and explained that to “preserve one’s one voice is a skill.” She agreed that it is a hard skill to learn, but it is necessary. While this was not a documentary lm, Nair explained that she had to “keep the spine of the story true” because the story she tells is a universally important one about the power of education for girls.