South Charlotte

‘Queen of Katwe’ based on 2006 film shot by Matthews nonprofit

David Johnson, founder of Matthews-based Silent Images, takes pictures in a slum in Katwe, Uganda. Footage from the trip became a short film about chess champion Phiona Mutesi, whose story now is being told in the Disney movie “Queen of Katwe.”
David Johnson, founder of Matthews-based Silent Images, takes pictures in a slum in Katwe, Uganda. Footage from the trip became a short film about chess champion Phiona Mutesi, whose story now is being told in the Disney movie “Queen of Katwe.”

The story of “Queen of Katwe,” a recently released Disney feature film about a Ugandan girl who becomes an African chess champion, was first told on film by a Matthews-based nonprofit organization.

The real-life story follows Phiona Mutesi, a girl from a slum in Uganda who learns to play the game at an afterschool club run by Sports Outreach, a ministry based in Virginia.

In 2006, Sports Outreach asked Silent Images, an organization in Matthews that helps nonprofits around the world and in Charlotte reach people with high-quality video and photography, tell Mutesi’s story in a short film.

Silent Images founder David Johnson visited Uganda with a film crew.

“Our angle is to find hope in the midst of poverty and oppression and highlight stories of people who are often overlooked,” Johnson said. “We knew Phiona’s story was special, and we wanted to tell her story to inspire viewers that physical poverty should never define who we can become.”

Johnson is a graduate of Charlotte Catholic and UNC-Chapel Hill, and he formerly was a teacher in Charlotte.

The Silent Images crew first met Phiona at a chess camp in northern Uganda. They spent seven days filming in the Ugandan slums, including shadowing Phiona’s mother while she worked in the market, following Phiona to school and filming Robert Katende, a Ugandan native who works with Sports Outreach and promotes chess among Ugandan youth.

Sports Outreach used the six-minute video about Mutesi to educate viewers about how it works and to ask them to donate, volunteer or pray.

Sports Outreach used Silent Images’ footage of Phiona Mutesi to pitch her story to Disney.

The Silent Images short film opens with scenes of Mutesi as she talks about her father dying of AIDS when she was 3 years old and her mother being unable to pay her school fees.

As Mutesi walks through a slum, she describes how she did not have hope. “Then,” she says, “I discovered chess.”

Footage shows Mutesi at school and then training for a chess competition in Russia, where she was chosen to represent Uganda. In a voiceover, she talks about how she values education and the confidence she has while playing chess.

While she did not win a trophy at the Russian competition, two years later she became one of the first titled women chess players in Ugandan history and continues to promote chess in Uganda.

Meanwhile, Sports Outreach used Silent Images’ footage of Mutesi to pitch her story to Disney. In 2011, Chapel Hill-based author Tim Crothers, who also had learned about Mutesi through Sports Outreach, profiled her for ESPN Sports Magazine.

Crothers expanded the story into a book, “The Queen of Katwe,” a book that was published in 2013.

Disney’s “Queen of Katwe” was released nationwide Sept. 30. Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o plays Mutesi’s mother, and Golden Globe nominee David Oyelowo plays Katende. Newcomer Madina Nalwanga plays Mutesi.

While Silent Images’ footage of Mutesi was not used in the Disney film, Johnson said parts of the original film have been purchased by ESPN, ABC, CBS and other news outlets. Silent Images does not make money off its production, so it has donated about $15,000 from video sales to the Ugandan chess camp.

The organization also remains close with Crothers, who was with the Silent Images crew when they originally filmed Mutesi’s story.

“He has become a good friend, and we have both loved seeing all the attention that Robert and Phiona have received,” Johnson said.

Marty Minchin is a freelance writer: martyminchin@gmail.com.

Learn more

For information about Silent Images, visit www.silentimages.org. The original short film about Mutesi can be viewed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=j7c9Jd5Afkw.

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