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Film can be inspiring in many ways, but I never thought that a film about Uganda would set off a chain of events which led to me actually trying to recreate aspects of that film in a rural school in western Uganda.
The film in question is Queen of Katwe, based on the true story of how Phionah Mutusi, a girl from Katwe (an impoverished area of Kampala) became a chess champion under the tutelage of chess expert Robert Katende. The film doesn't shy away from showing the poverty Phionah and her family encountered on a daily basis, nor does it try and show a sentimentalised view of a Kampala that doesn't exist. There are many themes to the film, but a common strand throughout is the idea of aspiration - that you can overcome all barriers if you work hard enough at something.
The school in which I teach, Liss Junior School in Hampshire, has been twinned with Kafuro Primary School in Uganda since 2009 and I have been co-ordinating the relationship between the two schools since 2010. Liss sits on the edge of Queen Elizabeth Country Park in Hampshire, while Kafuro is located on the edge of Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda. The link between the schools was the work of two rangers: Steve Peach from the UK and Charles Etoru from Uganda, who met at a conference and discovered that their parks had much more in common than just a shared name.
My first trip to Uganda and Kafuro took place in July 2012 and since then the schools have worked together on a number of projects. These have included introducing beehives at each school to help the environment and to produce additional sources of income, installing solar panels for clean energy, and building cob ovens so that the schools can cook recipes from each other's country. However, Queen of Katwe gave us the opportunity to take our shared learning to a new level.
Using a mini projector, a laptop and some flip-chart paper, we set up our cinema in the P7 classroom at Kafuro Primary School. It was fascinating to observe the Ugandan children watching Queen of Katwe as their reactions were quite different to that of our children back home. One scene in particular - when Mutusi's group are at a chess tournament in a private school and try to eat food before they were invited to do so - had the Kafuro children rolling around with laughter. And yet the Liss children didn't react to that scene at all. Clearly, Ugandan children's relationship with food is a source of much humour.
The Kafuro pupils really enjoyed the film and felt that it was an accurate reflection of aspects of Ugandan life. It was also the first time that they had written film reviews, but many of them picked up on the difficult decisions Phionah's mother had to make and the theme of aspiration.
After watching the film, the children were very keen to learn how to play chess, and after a couple of days it became clear that some of them had the potential to be very good at the game. We had been fortunate to arrange a telephone interview with Robert Katende himself, who told the children that the film was highly accurate (apart from some of the dance scenes) and how proud he was to have been portrayed by David Oyelowo on screen. He finished by giving some inspirational messages to the children about working hard and never giving up. We are hoping that he will visit Kafuro before the end of the year and run chess workshops for the children there.
I'm hoping that within the next twelve months we can arrange a game of chess over the internet between Kafuro and Liss children - between Uganda and Hampshire - and I'm already planning what film we will show next year at Kafuro.
Disney's new biography, about a girl from Uganda who becomes a chess prodigy, is an inspiring true-story and a triumphantly diverse piece of filmmaking.
Reading time 9 mins
To celebrate the European premiere of Queen of Katwe at the BFI London Film Festival, we interviewed Oscar-Winner Lupita Nyong'o and director Mira Nair.
Viewing time 4 mins
A film guide that looks at Queen of Katwe (2016), exploring its key topics and themes through informal discussion.
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