Presenting Princess Shaw, a stirring new documentary from Israel, is a modern digital fairytale about how the interconnected world of the internet can transform the lives of obscure but talented amateurs into international sensations when their videos suddenly go viral.
The film, a Participant Media release, has just opened in select theaters. Magnolia Pictures is distributing and will soon make it available for viewing on Video on Demand.
The documentary unfolds in two places that are halfway around the world from each other—New Orleans and Israel.
Plucky but down-and-out Samantha Montgomery works as a caregiver for the elderly in one of New Orleans toughest neighborhoods. At other times, she becomes Princess Shaw. Photographing herself on her cell phone, she does updates about her daily struggles. She also sings some soulful songs she’s written. Shaw posts the videos on her confessional YouTube channel, but they get 50 views at most.
However, one of Princess Shaw’s handful of viewers turns out to be an Israeli musical performer, composer and video artist who lives on a kibbutz in the Negev, Israel’s southern desert and goes by the name Kutiman. For the last few years, he has been assembling musical mashups for a series called Thru You that has attracted over 10 million views.
Kutiman (his real name is Ophir Kutiel) relentlessly culls YouTube for videos of obscure performers that have some singing talent that appeals to him. Then he artfully orchestrates their vocals by stitching together a backup band made of samples from unrelated solo instrumentalists—the only requirement is that they are all playing in the same key.
He stumbles on Princess Shaw. Impressed by her diamond-in-the-rough voice, he starts working on a video built around one of her bluesy vocals, Give It Up. Kutiman is meanwhile approached by director Ido Haar, a longtime acquaintance, who wants to make a documentary about him and his videos. The director-cinematographer decides the way to go about it is to find some of the singers that Kutiman has plucked out for his musical mashups in order to learn about their lives and what motivates them to be YouTubers. When he arrives in New Orleans, he’s so captivated by Princess Shaw’s story and her milieu that he wants to make the entire documentary just about her.
There’s a real-life twist that then becomes the emotional high-point of the narrative. Haar has only informed Princess Shaw that he is doing a documentary on YouTubers, and keeps her in the dark about Kutiman and his now-completed video of her singing Give It Up. Having been uploaded to YouTube (where it now has over 2.6 million views, by the latest tally), she views the video for the first while Haar’s camera is rolling, capturing her surprise and elation.
The rest of the documentary takes place in Israel. Princess Shaw travels there, meets Kutiman and also plays a concert to a sold-out audience at Habima, Israel’s national theater in Tel Aviv, backed by Kutiman and his musician friends.
“It was almost 9 to 10 months of me filming her in New Orleans, going there for a week and coming back to Israel, returning again after a few months,” recalls Haar. “But my biggest fear was not being there for the moment of discovery. I knew more or less when the song was going to be released. Every time she took out her cell phone I’m there with the camera. ‘Why are you filming me if we are just sitting in the park or walking in the street?’ I told her: ‘I need this for atmosphere, for some shots.’ Like a fisherman, I was sitting there silently, waiting. It was a big gamble. I was so moved and it was also a relief for me that I managed to catch this moment.”
“Even after she discovered the song she didn’t make a connection between me and Kutiman being from Israel because she was so excited,” he adds. “When I told her I knew for 9 months and I knew Kutiman very well it was a great moment.”
Presenting Princess Shaw has received enthusiastic reviews from critics, both when it debuted at the Toronto Film Festival last fall and upon its release this weekend. (It has a stellar 94 rating on Rotten Tomatoes). It is also a hit in Israel, where it has been playing to audiences growing by the week, influenced by positive word of mouth and social media.
But some reviewers have also faulted the documentary for being manipulative and lacking transparency. Shaw, they allege, was being lensed under false pretenses in her day-to-day activities for the documentary, because she wasn’t told from the start about the existence of Kutiman or his project.
In Los Angeles last week to promote the film, along with Kutiman and Haar, Shaw has no complaints: “The way it was done, by me not knowing about the video was the best thing, because otherwise it would be a whole different documentary.”
How has her life been transformed? “Traveling all over and meeting all these people, my life has changed dramatically— I’m having a ball,” she states. But she soon intends to return to her job in New Orleans. “I still work there, that’s the way I make money, and I know this ride doesn’t last forever.”
Presenting Princess Shaw is on limited release in theatres and available on demand, details on the official site.