Phiona Mutesi was simply searching for food when she stumbled upon Robert Katende teaching chess in her Uganda village – but what she found was a new life.
“I never believed that this time would come,” Mutesi tells PEOPLE. “I feel like I’m dreaming.”
Disney’s Queen of Katwe portrays the life of Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a young girl living in the Uganda slum of Katwe who discovers her uncanny talent for chess and rises to become one her nation’s top players with the help of her coach, Robert Katende (David Oyelowo).
Katende says when he first brought the game of chess to Uganda in 2005, he knew he was teaching the local children far more than just a board game.
“It was more like a platform that I could use to bond and connect with the children and see how I can try to inspire them and encourage them to move through life using the chess concept,” Katende tells PEOPLE. “It teaches us to develop the skills we need in day-to-day life.”
He explains that through the game of chess, players are taught focus, strategic thinking and problem-solving – skills he says are hardly taught in the formal setting of school.
“When you learn how to play chess, those skills just come automatically because you find yourself applying them on the board,” he says.
Mutesi was just nine years old when she began learning how to play chess, and she’s the first to admit that her connection to the game wasn’t immediate.
“I didn’t even have interest,” she says. But Katande says he saw her natural talent from the start. “She always stood out.”
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At 11, Phiona was a junior chess champion of Uganda – then the national champion. Now 17 and a Woman Candidate Master, she spends her time traveling the world competing in tournaments.
“After playing some tournaments and getting some prizes I became interested,” she jokingly admits. “I felt good. Most of the time when I’m playing, I feel something is within me. It’s natural.”
The film, which was shot entirely in Africa, highlights Mutesi’s training and determination to lift herself and her family out of the slums and create a better life through the opportunities chess provided.
And while Mutesi still marvels at the idea of her life being portrayed on the big screen, Katende – who spent a large part of production on set teaching the actors chess – sees the film as an opportunity to spread the message of hope.
“It’s not only us, there are many other people who find themselves in different states or hopeless situations and I think this can be a movie that will cheer them up and show them that however much things seem to be not moving right, there can always be a way, you just have to hang in there and hold your hope”
“It’s not about winning titles, but becoming a champion in life,” says Katende.
As for Mutesi’s future, she’s simply trying to get through her school exams so she can return to chess: “I want to become grandmaster.”
Also starring Lupita Nyong’o, Queen of Katwe is in theaters now.