Category: Sport on Film

Diego Maradona (UK 2019)

Maradona has media attention at San Paolo in Napoli

This is the third documentary biopic by Asif Kapadia following Senna (UK 2010) and Amy (UK 2015). It certainly matches the brilliance of those two earlier films. Kapadia, editor Chris King and music composer Antonio Pinto have again excelled themselves in creating a compelling narrative from found footage (mostly from the subject’s own archive) and audio interviews. I don’t think, however, that the three subjects are necessarily comparable. Certainly they each had careers with stellar periods and a strong emotional bond with fans but although they were both South American sporting legends, Ayrton Senna and Diego Maradona came from different backgrounds and the impulses behind the endings of their careers were quite different. Amy Winehouse was in some ways equally troubled by her attempts to deal with success and her emotional life as was Maradona but the music industry of the 2000s provides a different context to football in the 1980s.

Maradona, World Cup winner in Mexico 1986

If you don’t know the Maradona story, the film is mainly concerned with the period Diego Maradona spent as a footballer at Napoli between 1984 and 1991. He was 23 when he signed for Napoli after two seasons at Barcelona and 30 when he left Napoli. There is some coverage of his childhood and early career and a brief coda about what happened when he left Napoli. The focus on this period also includes his appearances with the Argentinian national team which won the the 1986 World Cup in Mexico and were beaten finalists in ‘Italia 90’ – West Germany were the opponents on each occasion.

Asif Kapadia is a football fan according to his tweets about supporting Liverpool. Yet one of the odd points about his Maradona film is that, despite a lot of footage from games featuring Napoli and Argentina, the film does not explore football itself in the way that Senna seemed to me to be partly ‘about’ motor racing. However, I did find the football match footage fascinating. Maradona made goals for other players that were deceptively simple but often scored goals himself that seemed to be magical in the way he bent the ball. The primary focus of the film is the footballer’s psychological profile which is outlined here by his personal trainer at Napoli.

Diego with his parents

The personal trainer tells us that Diego the young man is vulnerable because of his insecurities. He is a family man close to his mother and a likeable person. Maradona the footballer, bought for the then record transfer fee of $6.9 million in 1984 is, by contrast, constructed to survive in top class football. He develops a carapace to protect himself and his skills. ‘Maradona’ is a much more troubling character who looks for diversions in the wrong places when he is not training and playing. The narrative of his life then becomes the story of how ‘Maradona’ becomes almost a God in Naples before destroying himself and almost destroying Diego. Kapadia called his film ‘Diego Maradona’ – both names – whereas the earlier films, ‘Senna’ and ‘Amy’, used only one.

As in the other films, the archive footage tells the story through the edit, with ‘witness’ interviews played in audio over the archive material. I don’t think anyone is interviewed on screen by Kapadia or his team, though there are several archive interviews. The film flows because of the brilliance of the editing decisions, both what to include and how to cut it, and the music. It runs for 130 minutes and though some have suggested the match footage could be shortened, most football fans will want to see all of it – partly because we are offered different viewpoints than was usual for 1980s TV coverage. Because most of the footage is from video recordings or 8mm film the disparity between 35mm film and video is not so pronounced. The two World Cup finals and a later Argentinian TV interview from 2004 stand out in terms of higher definition. I assume that the video material has been cropped in many cases but I was so taken up with the pace of the narrative that I didn’t notice any changes of aspect ratio or obvious cropping.

One other difference in this Kapadia film is the importance of Napoli as a location, but also as a ‘character’ in the story. I hadn’t realised just how much Napoli was seen as an underperforming club in Serie A before Maradona’s arrival or how much the North-South divide mattered in Italian football. Napoli’s stadium, San Paolo was finally completed in 1959 but when Maradona is first introduced to fans at the stadium in 1984 I was struck by the long walk to the pitch from the bowels of the stadium with high walls over which the crowds could see Maradona emerging on the pitch. I was reminded of gladiators entering the arena in Roman times. Later, when Maradona reached his highest status with the fans, murals began to appear  claiming him as the modern manifestation of San Gennaro, Naples’ patron saint.

What most intrigued me was the inclusion of two or three soundbites in which Maradona is referred to (in the subtitles) as “this black kid from a poor neighbourhood”. Kapadia clearly chose these clips but the format doesn’t really allow any discussion of the implication that some of Maradona’s problems come from the prejudice that his family faced in Argentina and elsewhere. I was reminded of the not dissimilar case of Luis Suaréz who has been a highly successful South American player in European football for over ten years, but like Maradona he has also been embroiled in various controversial incidents (all on the field). In 2011 as a Liverpool player Suaréz was banned for eight matches and fined for using racist language in an altercation with Patrice Evra. Suaréz did not accept the charge, claiming that the use of terms for ‘black’ in Latin America was different to that in Europe. There is a long tradition of South American players signing for clubs in Spain and Italy, but in the 1980s the film suggests that Maradona still felt an outsider.

Asif Kapadia does include the moment when Maradona became notorious in England with the ‘hand of God’ goal in Mexico – but also scored one of the greatest World Cup goals. The link is made to the Malvinas War which I’m sure was a worrying time for Argentinians as well as for those of us in the UK who didn’t support Thatcher’s war. I noted that the footage of the game in Mexico revealed some horrendous English fouls as the players sought in vain to negate Maradona’s influence on the game.

Maradona celebrates with his daughter, Dalma(?)

Overall, although I really enjoyed the film and I recommend it highly, I’m wondering now if there is enough worthwhile material to make a longer documentary serial for TV. I’d like to know more about football culture and institutions in Italy, Argentina and worldwide in the 1980s and I’d also like a little more about ‘Diego’ as well as about Maradona.

The Keeper (Trautmann, Germany-UK 2018)

This is an enjoyable and well-produced German-UK co-production focused on events in the life of Bert Trautmann, a German POW in Lancashire in the closing stages of the Second World War who became a famous goalkeeper at Manchester City with a career spanning 15 years from 1949. It’s not a full biopic of Bert Trautmann nor is it a generic sports drama. Instead it’s an unusual romance with both the war (and its aftermath) and sport as major elements. It’s also a largely ‘true story’, but with significant omissions and possible misrepresentations. But these changes don’t negate a strong narrative. Unfortunately, the independent UK distributor Parkland Entertainment has been unable to exploit the film fully with a release on 84 screens. The result is that despite audience support and some strong reviews, it’s actually been quite difficult to find the film in UK cinemas. Wherever it has played, audience responses have been good so perhaps it will succeed on DVD and VOD? The film received a wider release, I think, in Germany in March 2019, but despite making No 10 in the chart only lasted a couple of weeks making around $600,000. In the UK it had made £300,000 after six weeks.

The ‘real’ Bert Trautmann playing against Wolves

David Kross as Trautmann, dealing as best he can with hostile supporters

My personal attachment to the story is that the first televised football match that I watched was the 1956 Cup Final in which Manchester City beat Birmingham City. It became known as ‘the Trautmann final’ and what happened to Bert Trautmann on that day is an important element of the film’s narrative. However, the wider story of Trautmann’s first twenty years in the UK features many other important elements. The story, written by the director Marcus H Rosenmüller with Nicholas J. Schofield and producer Robert Marciniak takes the main points of Trautmann’s story and smooths them into a satisfying romantic drama in which Bert Trautmann emerges as a heroic figure in the UK. There is rather more in the full true story. It seems to have taken some time for the German producers to find UK partners and put the funding together. Like several other recent UK productions, the whole UK shoot seems to have been based in the North of Ireland with Belfast and its hinterland standing in for Lancashire. Effective CGI recreates both the former Manchester City ground at Maine Road and the old Wembley stadium. A German shoot based in München provides some wartime scenes and flashback material. Cinematography by Daniel Gottschalk and the production design, art direction and costume design make a good stab at representing the late 1940s/early 1950s. The supporting cast is led by well-known character actors such as John Henshaw, Dervla Kirwan and Gary Lewis which gives it heft, but the film stands or falls on its pairing of David Kross as Trautmann and Freya Mavor as Margaret, the young woman he marries. Both are excellent.

Margaret and her father (John Henshaw) confront Sergeant Smythe (Harry Melling)

Rather than outline the narrative I think it is useful to spell out some of the interesting facts in Bert Trautmann’s story in order to explain the film’s appeal. Trautmann was a tall and handsome man with blue eyes and fair hair. He volunteered for the paratroopers aged 17, won an Iron Cross  and survived the war, being captured and escaping several times before becoming a POW in early 1945. He was a good footballer and played as a POW alongside farm work. When professional football re-started after 1945, crowds were enormous and unlike today, big city clubs attracted a mainly male working-class audience from the local area. Manchester City had a significant section of potential support from the large local Jewish community. It is a measure of Trautmann’s ability as a player that he did eventually win over the fans despite the doubts about his wartime exploits. The obvious issue for the filmmakers was the question of how to deal with the ‘Good German’ – i.e. how to humanise the character and to avoid creating either a saintly figure or one who may appear duplicitous. Two other recent films come to mind, The Aftermath (UK-Germany 2019) and Land of Mine (Denmark-Germany 2015). Both are relevant here in different ways. In The Keeper, there are two strategies. The first is to deflect the questions about Trautmann’s potential Nazi past by including more obvious Nazi characters amongst the POWs and by creating what seems like the exaggerated figure of the British sergeant in charge of the camp’s work details and who displays no sense of any tolerance or understanding whatsoever. This character also appears in the other films but I wonder if Rosenmüller found it difficult to direct the acting performance by Harry Melling? The other strategy here is to put the onus of defending Bert onto Margaret as his wife. Freya Mavor does very well with what I think is a difficult role. It would be interesting to compare Margaret as the younger, working-class/lower middle-class woman in the same position as the older, upper middle-class Rachel (played by Keira Knightley) in The Aftermath.

The narrative emphasises the romance between Bert and Margaret (Freya Mavor)

I’m not going to spoil the last section of the narrative covering the Cup Final and its immediate aftermath. All I’ll say is that there is tragedy that leavens the expected feelgood factor. The film finishes with titles that tell us what happened to Bert Trautmann as a footballer (he played his last City game in 1964). But apart from telling us that Margaret died in 1980 and Bert died in 2013, it says nothing more about the years after 1964. This is understandable in the attempt to streamline the story and there is enough incident in both the sports story and the romance to satisfy audiences. (If you want to know more about this remarkable man see this biography page.)

I recognised David Kross but couldn’t place where I’d seen him before. Later I realised he was the lead in the excellent youth picture Tough Enough (Knallhart, Germany 2006) when he would have been 15. I was pleased also to see Freya Mavor. I was most  aware of her from Sunshine on Leith (UK 2013) but researching this film I discovered that she has experience in French film and theatre as well as in Scottish cinema. I wonder if she speaks German as well? The Keeper was dubbed into German for its release there in 2018. The film’s credits are long at the end but it’s worth sitting through them to hear a Noel Gallagher song (he and his brother are massive Man City fans).

GFF19 #4: Permission (Araghe Sard a.k.a. Cold Sweat, Iran 2018)

Afrooz celebrates after scoring a goal

This Iranian film features a couple of ideas that will be familiar to fans of global cinema. Firstly it constructs a narrative about the attempts of patriarchy to restrain women’s rights to engage with and enjoy football, as in Jafar Panahi’s Offside (2006). Secondly, it plays out a court procedure with the camera trained on a warring married couple while keeping the judge offscreen. Although the framings and composition are different this scene resembles the well-known one at the beginning of Asgar Farhadi’s A Separation (2011).

The team, led by Afrooz, arrive at the airport

The sport in the film is actually futsal, an indoor football game played by by both men and women with five players per side. Since 1999 Iran have won all but three Asian Women’s Futsal Championships. They have also reached the last four of the Fifa World Championship. The game is very important for female athletes in Iran and the focus in the film is on the national team’s (fictitious) captain and main goalscorer Afrooz (Baran Kosari). When the team travels to the airport to fly to Malaysia for the Asian Championships, Afrooz is stopped  by passport control and told that she cannot leave the country because her husband has not given his permission (which presumably he has in the past since Afrooz is the team’s top player).

The highly-experienced Baran Kosari gives a strong performance as Afrooz

Afrooz tries to contact her husband Yasser, a daytime TV host. But the couple haven’t lived together for some time and in fact Afrooz is living with another team member Panatea in a flat also owned by her husband. Yasser (Amir Jadidi) does everything he can to prevent Afrooz leaving, including physical harassment. The legal conundrum is that Afrooz must either get his permission to travel or obtain a divorce, which seems very difficult in the couple of days before the games begin.

I won’t spoil the narrative of a film by detailing the plot since the film should appear in the UK at some point. The legal issue is quite complex as is often the case in Iran. I’m not sure how constitutional law works in Iran but in most of the films I’ve seen the judiciary seem thorough and fair. It’s the laws themselves that are restrictive. The husband is an extremely annoying character. He’s egotistical, forever preening himself and simpering on TV. Afrooz herself is strong and decisive but also quick to anger (a team captain in the Roy Keane mould). She has every right to be angry since she also has to contend with the woman she has hired as a lawyer who seems more interested in making the case into a media event and the woman who is in effect the team manager and chaperone and who acts as the link to the National Federation. Apart from Panatea, will the rest of the women on the team support her?

Afrooz tries rational argument with her husband

A short sequence of a game shown in the early part of the film gives a good representation of the passion of both the players and the fans but I wonder if the struggle by Afrooz to assert her rights is equally well-handled? The trick that Panahi and Farhadi employ so well in these kinds of narratives is to find the humanism in the situation as well as the humour, anger, pathos, frustration and commitment. Writer-director Soheil Beiraghi has got the basis of a good story here (based on real events) but perhaps the script could be developed a little more? Having said that, it is only his second feature as a director and he does create emotional scenes fitting for a melodrama, using close-ups and lighting to show the effect on Afrooz. The film has been generally well-received at festivals and some critics have been very impressed. It’s certainly well worth looking for.

The Glasgow programme listed the film with the title Permission, which seems to be how it has been released in France (as La Permission) but in the US it seems to be Cold Sweat. It would be good to get this sorted if it comes out in the UK. The programme lists the print source as Peccadillo Pictures in the UK, but it hasn’t appeared on that company’s website as yet. Here’s the French trailer:

Comme des garçons (Let the Girls Play, France 2018)

The team play in the French national colours

There is an unwritten rule of European film distribution that comedies struggle to overcome language barriers, so in the UK we only rarely see the sometimes very popular local comedy hits from France, Germany, Italy or Spain. The Online French Film Festival offers a chance to see a range of French films and this year MUBI have streamed a couple of the films on offer. Comme des garçons is, in one sense, very familiar as a sports comedy but one with a serious purpose – always a tricky mix and to complicate things further it is based on real events. The different factors involved in its conception introduce different genre elements and the main task for director Julien Hallard is to keep the different elements working together.

It’s 1969 in Reims, the centre of Champagne, and in an engaging opening sequence we see that all the staff of the local newspaper are glued to transistor radios listening to the unfolding tragedy of their local football team’s relegation to Division 2. Reims was at this point one of the best known and historically successful teams in France. The paper’s young(ish) sports reporter Paul Coutard (Max Boublil) makes a hash of covering the story and his punishment is to organise the paper’s annual charity event alongside his nemesis, the editor’s PA Emmanuelle (Vanessa Guide). Paul decides to try something completely different, a women’s football match. Coutard is a sad character who thinks he is ‘hip’ and initially imagines it will be fun to audition young women for a team and enjoy watching them run around in tiny shorts. I won’t spoil the rest of the narrative which is fairly predictable but I’ll note that the original newspaper scenario seems to be abandoned only to turn up in another guise – Paul’s actual job seems to disappear but his antics with the women’s team become fodder for the tabloids. The comedy becomes a rom-com when Emmanuelle removes her glasses but the sports story, although it utilises several familiar genre narrative devices, doesn’t head for the usual sporting triumph. Instead the contest is really about the struggle to get women’s football taken seriously.

Paul Coutard (Max Boublil) is the reporter who starts the team just for fun

The real historical events do seem to show that France was surprisingly behind most other European countries in the 1960s in the complete lack of any organised women’s football in the face of the intransigence of the national federation to even consider licensing women’s teams. (As in the UK there was a long history of organised women’s football and French and English teams met in front of large crowds in the 1920s but soon after, the national football authorities banned women’s football from professional stadia). The final repertoire that Comme des garçons therefore draws on is the ‘social problem’ of sexism in 1969 – not much different to sexism today. The struggle is represented partly through the comedy and this is where the film does become quite heavy-handed I think. But it did remind me of some of the broader comic moments of 1960s/70s films like Nelly Kaplan’s La fiancée du pirate or François Truffaut’s Une belle fille comme moi (France 1972). It’s modern links are to a film like Populaire (France-Belgium 2012) which is a 1950s set romantic comedy melded with a sport/competition film about ‘speed typing’. That film boasted the star power of Romain Duris and Déborah François and a much stronger aesthetic sense. Comme des garçons has fun with its 1969 vintage vehicles, its pop soundtrack and occasionally with costumes but I didn’t feel a strong sense of time and place. I discovered afterwards that one of the dialogue writers, Claude Le Pape had also worked on Les combattants (France 2014). Perhaps she might have played a bigger writing role? I struggled to read an interview in French with writer-director Julien Hallard and I wasn’t convinced about his overall approach.

Emmanuelle (Vanessa Guide) is more than a match for Paul – and not a bad striker with the ball

The two best-known films focusing on women and football are Bend it Like Beckham (UK-Germany 2002) and Offside (Iran 2006), very different films but both successful in attracting audiences and making real statements. They both focus on the young women at the centre of the narrative and have a clear narrative drive with a conviction about where they want to go. Comme des garçons suffers from making the male journalist the protagonist and not having a similarly strong narrative drive. Having said that, it is still an enjoyable film to watch and for UK viewers there is one familiar character and actor. As in Bend it Like Beckham, it is the father, in this case Emmanuelle’s father who will eventually support his daughter. And here dad is played by BBC4’s ‘Inspector Montalbano’ himself, Luca Zingaretti. (I’m not sure the shorts are a good idea Salvo!)

Official trailer (no subtitles):

I, Tonya (US 2017)

Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) as a teenager when she first meets Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), photos courtesy of NEON and 30WEST.

I went into this screening with no expectations and came out wondering exactly what I’d seen. I remembered the furore about the figure skater Tonya Harding and her rival Nancy Kerrigan back in 1994 but I was unaware of how it had been covered in the US media. My immediate reaction to the film was that Tonya got a ‘bum rap’ from the authorities, but since the film begins by telling us that it is based on “irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true” interviews, I don’t know if this is a reasonable position or not. I will say that Margot Robbie as Tonya gives an amazing performance. Allison Janney as her mother gives the kind of performance you expect from a great character actor.

Tonya’s mother (Allison Janney)

For anyone who doesn’t know the background to the story, Tonya Harding in the late 1980s was a working-class girl who had shown genuine skating talent from the time she was a toddler and as an older teenager she was clearly a major talent with athleticism and a real drive to succeed. Aged 14 she was 6th in the American Championships in 1985 and a year later 2nd in the Skate America international competition. But from the start Harding felt she was treated unfairly because of her working-class background and for the next eight years she struggled to gain credibility even when she won or was well-placed in major international competitions. In 1994 she was charged, along with her ex-husband, his friend and two hired thugs that they had attacked Harding’s rival Kerrigan. Harding maintained she didn’t know about the physical attack but she confessed to the charge that she subsequently conspired to hinder the prosecution of the attackers. The whole series of events became a tabloid sensation in the US and when Harding was sentenced she received what amounted to a lifetime ban from skating.

Tonya becomes the first American woman to perform a successful ‘triple axel’

Given the coverage at the time, anyone over 40 in America today knows the story and younger audiences must be similarly aware: Wikipedia informs me that there have been several TV documentaries as well as a play and a musical plus references/spoofs in other entertainment media. Why then should you be interested in this new film? The first reason may well be Margot Robbie’s performance. The Australian actor is 5′ 6”. Tonya Harding is 5′ 1″. Robbie is not a look-a-like stand-in but she is convincing in ageing from 15 to 47. Much of the performance requires world-class skating (and Harding was one of the strongest athletic skaters around). The filmmakers (Robbie was also a producer on the film directed by another Australian, Craig Gillespie) managed to use CGI, literally drawing on Harding’s routines, but even so it is a tour de force by Robbie.

Jeff, Tonya and her trainer Diane (Julianne Nicholson) are approached by a police officer with a report of an anonymous threat

The key to the film’s approach is the choice of ‘mockumentary’ and reality TV as an aesthetic mode, so we are offered ‘straight to camera’ comments by the principals as if they were being  interviewed today (i.e. Robbie is aged to 47). During the historical narrative, the same principals will also turn to the camera and offer observations on the scene as it is unfolding. Several reviews reference Scorsese’s presentation of Henry Hill in Goodfellas (1990) and that’s not a bad shout in terms of the use of music and voiceovers. I’m not a fan of reality TV and though I found some scenes amusing, I was also saddened to see a life marked by domestic violence that is played for laughs. I thought that the array of characters were exaggerated grotesques – only then to discover from the photographs at the end in the credits sequence that at least the actors did look like the real players in this biopic. The mockumentary tropes also get in the way of the other genre features which interest me more. I, Tonya is a sports movie of a specific kind. In the Guardian Anne Billson offers a useful piece in which she points out that the film deals with a sport in which women are not competing in a ‘man’s world’ and therefore we can enjoy a different kind of sports narrative. Billson also offers us brief descriptions of several other sports stories with female leads to underpin her argument, including the Drew Barrymore-Ellen Page film Whiplash (US 2014), which would make an interesting comparison for film students.

Ice skating is one of those sports with a relatively ‘niche’ following of devoted fans, but which occasionally produces a celebrity figure with wide appeal. The Winter Olympics is always a high point and this year it was the Canadian ice-dancing pair Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, three-time gold medallists who wowed a Canadian public who seemingly want the couple to marry. On the same day as I, Tonya‘s release, The Ice King, a documentary about John Curry, the supreme ice-dancer from the 1970s also opened in UK cinemas – unfortunately overshadowed by the American film. Skating fans will no doubt seek it out on DVD or online.

There are several distinct features of skating as a sport. One is difficulty of access and the funding for equipment and training. Entertainment features tend to gloss over this. So, while I, Tonya makes jokes about abuse and the costumes that Tonya and her mother sew at home, it doesn’t represent the very real struggle to compete without adequate funds. The conservative attitudes of the administrators of American skating create another barrier to success. A sport like skating is in one sense linked to equestrian sports in the UK in terms of funding, access and potential class conflict. But in North America they might be linked to geographical isolation and small town communities. I, Tonya is odd in not exploring Harding’s home context in Portland, Oregon. I assumed at first that the Hardings were in the South (and the film was shot almost entirely in Georgia, supported by that state’s film commission). It also misses a trick in not exploring more of Nancy Kerrigan’s background (which may be down to permissions). Kerrigan was also from a working-class background in a small town north of Boston. She wasn’t a privileged skater, though in ideological terms her career success could be seen as the result of ‘hard work’ and ‘family support’ – factors difficult for Tonya Harding to draw on for various reasons.

I, Tonya is a well-made film with some great performances and I was certainly engaged throughout. It does give a sense of the impact of celebrity and tabloid sensationalism as it began to be used on cable TV news in North America, but it misses out on a real story about sport, class and gender. Harding’s life after her conviction could be the basis for a whole new narrative but in I, Tonya it is just a relatively brief coda.

Here is the trailer. It hints at the extensive use of popular songs on the soundtrack, which includes Cliff Richard’s ‘Devil Woman’ and Chicago’s ’25 or 6 to 4′ plus Doris Day and a host of familiar 70s and 80s stuff.

Queen of Katwe (US 2016)

Lupita-N'Yongo, Mira Nair and David Oyelowo on set for Queen of Katwe

Lupita Nyong’o, Mira Nair and David Oyelowo on set for ‘Queen of Katwe’

Queen of Katwe is a ‘Disney movie’ set in Uganda. But it’s also a Mira Nair film and part of David Oyelowo’s overall project to bring African stories into mainstream cinemas. These three factors ought to combine to create a significant box office hit. The film itself is very good and had the same emotional impact for me as A United Kingdom. Unfortunately, however, Disney as a corporation seems to tripped up in trying to promote the film. There are many websites, videos and stories online about the original project and the Disney film, so perhaps the problem is that the Disney brand is so deeply embedded in the public consciousness that audiences are unable to negotiate it in different ways. Either way, the result is that despite an initial ‘wide’ release in the UK and US, Queen of Katwe hasn’t found the audience it seeks. I finally managed to get to a local screening organised by Keighley Film club, which is able to screen films in our 1913 Picture House. I hope many more find it on DVD/Blu-ray and TV in the coming months.

Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) collects water in Katwe.

Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) collects water in Katwe.

The story is set in Katwe, a district of Kampala (population 1.5 million) the capital of Uganda. It’s a true story and in the final credits we meet the ‘real’ characters in the drama. Katwe appears to have a reputation both as an innovative centre for artisan manufacture and as a sprawling ‘slum’ district. In the film it comes across much like the shanty towns of other African cities with low quality housing thrown up alongside the railway track. In other descriptions, Katwe is presented as the worst kind of slum with no sanitation, no secure accommodation and a trap into which the poor from rural areas and other parts of the city are destined to fall. As photographed by Nair’s cinematographer Sean Bobbit it looks bright and lively, but also plagued by sewage and subject to flooding. In this unlikely setting Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) is the single parent of three children. The two younger children, close in age, are Brian and Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) and it is the latter who is the focus of the film. (The older daughter Night provides the illustration of what Phiona might become if she gives up the discipline of chess.) The film’s title logically refers to Phiona who, through her success in chess tournaments, will become a celebrated media star. But it is also possible to see her mother as a ‘Queen’, simply on the basis that Lupita Nyong’o is such a stunning star presence with the stature of a model and the experience of red carpet occasions as well as her own distinguished family background. There is no reason why mothers in Katwe shouldn’t be beautiful, but Nyong’o certainly stands out.

Robert Katende teaches a class at the Katwe Chess Academy, which he founded in 2003. Martina Bacigalupo for NPR (http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/10/05/496425623/photos-theyre-all-kings-and-queens-of-katwe)

Robert Katende teaches a class at the Katwe Chess Academy, which he founded in 2003.
Photo: Martina Bacigalupo for NPR (www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/10/05/496425623/photos-theyre-all-kings-and-queens-of-katwe)

Phiona discovers chess alongside Brian in a community ‘school’ run by an outreach worker for a Christian charity. Robert Katende himself had a difficult childhood. You can learn about his life through a documentary made by Mira Nair and available on Vimeo. The same documentary is also available on The Queen of Katwe website from Sport Outreach. Katende’s childhood involved the dangers of living in the bush with the violence of the DRC spreading over the border. In the film he becomes an ex-footballer who has had to retire because of injury and a qualified engineer with an excellent degree thwarted by the recruitment policies of local firms. This latter is explored through the class divisions in Ugandan society when Katende takes his brightest hopes, including Phiona and Brian to a competition in an upmarket school where the Katwe children are at first treated as aliens.

The Katwe children at the chessboard

The Katwe children at the chessboard

At first glance, it isn’t difficult to see why Disney agreed to fund the film. It combines two attractive ideas for the studio – a bright and intelligent young female lead character (for a studio that has brought us Brave and Moana in the last few years) and a solid genre narrative as a ‘sports movie’ with a charismatic ‘coach’ and enough dramatic conflict, but also a ‘happy ending’. As a bonus it is based on a true story. Working with a director like Mira Nair is perhaps an innovation for the main Disney brand (as distinct from Disney’s previous ‘adult brands’ such as Touchstone). Queen of Katwe actually originated from ESPN, Disney’s majority-owned sports company in the form of a magazine article and book by Tim Crothers, but it is branded with the Disney logo. Nair has a distinctive approach which includes work with non-professional actors (e.g. in Salaam Bombay) as well as a background in documentary filmmaking. Madina Nalwanga had not acted before but she has trained as a dancer and the skills she has learned helped her to maintain composure in the role. Mira Nair also has the local knowledge that is so important in making this kind of film in a country with limited film infrastructure like Uganda. She is married to a Ugandan and in 1991 she made Mississippi Mermaid which followed the story of an East Asian family from Uganda migrating to the American South. That story focused on the daughter of the family played by Sarita Choudhury. In the case of Queen of Katwe, it would appear that the Disney ‘front office’ kept its distance and Nair was able to make the film on her own terms in Kampala with support from the South African film infrastructure which has interests in East Africa.

The problems for this film have come in distribution and exhibition. In the UK, Disney is able to organise cinema ads and trailers that target the same audience as the Disney film that is showing. When I saw the film there were no children in the audience which was predominantly 55+ but we got trails for new Disney films. Disney needed two strategies to sell the film to two different audiences in multiplexes and in specialised cinemas. They failed to reach audiences in both. I think the situation in North America was similar. The critics (professional and amateur) rated the film highly but audiences didn’t find the film. Perhaps Queen of Katwe is a ‘safe’ film in terms of its story, but though it pursues a genre narrative, it avoids easy sentimentality and sticks largely to the facts. It doesn’t need any white characters to in any way ‘legitimise’ Phiona’s success as a chess player. I can imagine it would have been tempting for Disney to press for Phiona’s story to end up in the US. But the film sticks to two overseas trips – to Sudan and Russia. At the end of the film, a song from Alicia Keys appears. I thought this was out of place (I like Ms Keys and the song, but it didn’t fit here for me, even though she wrote it specifically for the film). There’s a clip here explaining why she wrote it – and some comments by the cast about the music scene in Uganda. I urge you to see this film and if you want to learn more I suggest looking at the various clips, interviews and documentaries on YouTube. Here’s the trailer (with the Alicia Keys song):

and here’s a documentary from NTV Uganda: