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Esteri Tebandeke: Queen of Katwe changed my life

Esteri Tebandeke

Queen of Katwe has got Ugandans talking. Some have chosen to bash the film—calling it an embarrassment, while others think it has been the best African story told by Hollywood.

This is one of the few films about Africa that do not reflect disease and suffering. Even when the people in the film are living in abject poverty, they are doing something about it.

In fact, it has been one of the reasons Hollywood pundits have given for the film’s failure at the Box Office despite all its great reviews. Apparently, the audience there is not used to a film starring Africans, telling a story about a solution-finding African.

Esteri Tebandeke, one of the actors, notes that the film changed her life forever – both as an actor and a person. “Before the film, I was afraid of my dreams because they were so big. But now I am even more scared—they are bigger,” she says.

Tebandeke embodies Sarah Katende, wife to Oyelowo’s Robert Katende, responsible for discovering Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga)’s chess talent. She notes that since getting the role, she has not been able to wake up from the dream.

“It was February 6, 2015 at 2:06pm. I won’t forget that day. Our lives changed forever,” she says, pointing out the moment she received a call from Mira Nair informing her about getting the Sara Katende role.

“I even wrote it on a white board and the writing stayed there for six months.”

Queen of Katwe premiered in Kampala on October 1 to a limited audience and showed in cinemas for the public last Friday. Tebandeke was one of those that attended the star-studded premiere at Acacia mall’s Century Cinemax in Kampala, but can’t get over her performance.

“I hate watching myself because I am usually my biggest judge. But after watching the film [Queen of Katwe], I thought I should be easy on myself,” she says.

But it wasn’t a walk in the park for the visual artist and dancer-turned-actress. In fact, her rise to the big screen is full of surprises and of course many pitfalls. For instance, even when she had her first acting role with Judith Adong’s Sins of the Parents in 2008 and Master on Duty in 2009 by Joseph Ken Ssebaggala, her film career had almost hit a deadlock because people wouldn’t cast her.

“I was told all sorts of things from being too dark, too big, big lips, and so on; to a point that I felt film wasn’t for me,” she recalls.

She would later delve into theatre since she felt it was more inclusive. This saw her take on roles like Kate in The Body of A Woman, Battlefield in The Bosnian War, as well as lead roles in Cooking Oil, Maria Kizito and her debut theatre production, Lion and The Jewel where she portrayed Sidi.

“Getting that role was surprising. Kaya Kagimu Mukasa cast me because I apparently looked like Sidi,” she says, adding that it was so scary because she had never done theatre before yet she was cast as the lead and, worse still, she was acting alongside then Uganda National Cultural Centre director Joseph Walugembe who had much theatre experience.

“It was the same feeling I had while acting alongside David. He’s a brilliant actor, down to earth and so humane, even when he is a Hollywood star,” she says.

Before Queen of Katwe, Tebandeke and her husband Samuel Lutaaya Tebandeke had embarked on another project. With a pilot scheme registering about 50 artistes from different disciplines, they created ‘Page Six’, an online directory seeking to give art and entertainment professionals online presence and provide necessary information to potential contractors.

“While shooting the film, David [Oyelowo] always insisted that we don’t have to wait for international roles but create our own works,” she says, adding that at the moment, they want to put many of the ‘Page Six’ artistes to work.

“There are many opportunities Queen of Katwe has exposed us to. At the moment, we are joining hands with casting companies to get our clients working,” she notes.

But besides ‘Page Six’, the actress, harbouring dreams of being on Broadway, says she and her husband are already working on two Ugandan biographies for the big screen. Lucky for them, they already have a Canadian producer on board.

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