Weltschmerz is a German word for the sadness of the heart born of the “perceived mismatch between the ideal image of how the world should be with how it really is”. I can’t swear that I’m using it in proper context but watching Phiona’s hangdog face as she returns to the extreme poverty that is her life after being feted as a chess champion in Sudan and after representing at the world Olympiad in Russia, I can’t help thinking that she is weltschmerz.
Phiona’s story explores not just the Disney-esque feel-good narrative of the ascendency of a prodigy discovered in the unlikely Ugandan slum of Katwe, one revealed to have the skill of being able to see eight moves ahead in a game of Kings and Queens, Knights and Rooks, but the tension between this ascendency and the stagnancy of her life. It’s Cinderella if after the ball, there was no Prince, no slipper, no hope of relief from your life, no one to save you but yourself. And nothing stopping you from saving yourself except first believing in yourself (it’s a long journey to this for a girl who thought the boy she played at the fancy school where she played her first outside tournament let her win). It takes self-belief, but it also takes a village. So, there is, importantly, the mentor who pushes Phiona and sacrifices his professional possibilities for this community of children of which she is a part, children who need him. And there is her mother who sacrifices, though she doesn’t quite get it, though she feels threatened by it, even though, as she points out, they can’t eat the trophies Phiona is bringing home.
Queen of Katwe is a powerful story. Not a punch in the gut so much as a cycle of laughing through tears – but go ahead, no one can see you in the darkened theatre.
The big screen film Queen of Katwe most reminds me of is Akeelah and the Bee. Gifted girl, struggling mom whose resistance is one of the main hurdles she has to overcome, troubled family life, mentor with his own problems training his prodigy for the challenge of her life, the community rooting for her and in so doing rooting for itself, the class differences between her and her competitors, the completely different world this thing she’s gifted at opens up to her (a world where she and her peers after discovering ketchup dream of a pool of ketchup, where on stepping out of the airport in Russia she tilts back her head, the expression on her face blissful, and tastes snow). That last one is, of course, where weltschmerz comes in: each time she goes away and returns to a home where realities include her brother after getting hit by a bike having to be stitched without pain medicine because there is none, that same brother having to be snuck out of the hospital before he is healed because there’s no money to pay the bill, her family finding itself evicted, and her little brother almost dying in a flash flood that runs through their squat.
Before she was shown something else – and this is true for many of us who grew up with less – Phiona didn’t know the more she was missing and she was content, even happy with her life (though aware of its deprivations, like hunger). When the neighbourhood man calls out to Phiona as she makes her way home, “how is your life”, pre-chess, she replies, “it is fine”; post-chess, post-travel, post-victory, post-disappointment, Phiona is too depressed to offer her usual response, or any response at all. And it’s not just the loss, it is the realization that this is her life and no matter what she achieves out there, that will never change. Except it can, but she has to believe it.
There are layers to this thing, because as Phiona changes, she grows away from the family she loves, the mother who loves her fiercely – and who in the end loves her enough to let her go. And, hey, it’s true, if you love something let it go, if it comes back, it is yours. Phiona does find her way back home, and she does compete again and again, and her life improves by degrees, once she makes peace with the truth that she has earned her right to be there, that when she is in the room with the best in the world she is right where she belongs.
I don’t know chess, but I picked up enough to understand that not only does Phiona see several moves ahead – quickly outgrowing what her mentor can teach her – but she plays aggressively, which, from the reactions, is unusual in a girl. When she falters is when she doubts herself, when she lets circumstances get in to her head.
It is a beautiful story, well told, with valuable lessons about dreaming big, believing in yourself, pushing through the odds, picking yourself up from disappointment, and knowing that you have a right to be where you are even if it’s not the place you’re used to. It is also a reminder that success can have you feeling weltschmerz.
Someone described Queen of Katwe, when I mentioned I was going to see it, as a gorgeous film, and I have to agree. It’s vividly shot, and because of that the poverty is hyper real but so too is the beauty, the beauty of the physical landscape and beauty and nuance of the emotional landscape.
I’m glad I got to see it.
It was uncertain because films like these don’t come here often and its box office has been weak – which is unfortunate – but I’ve got to thank Deluxe Cinemas Antigua for bringing it anyway. The only downside was the guy – and isn’t there always one – who decided that the conversation on his phone was more important than the movie we had all paid to see. But not even he could strip the joy – through tears – that was the experience of watching a girl step in to her destiny and her life and that of her family be transformed by it.
Queen of Katwe stars Oscar winner Lupita Nyongo and David Oyelowo, and introduces talented newcomer Madina Nalwanga.
-by Joanne C. Hillhouse who is asking Deluxe Cinemas Antigua to please also bring Loving and Hidden Figures, as well.