“Presenting Princess Shaw”
From New Orleans to Tel Aviv
Samantha Montgomery is 38 years old and lives alone in one of New Orleans’ toughest neighborhoods. During the day she works as a caregiver for the elderly and at night she becomes Princess Shaw, singing soulful originals at poorly attended open mic nights and posting homemade a cappella clips on YouTube for just a handful of viewers. One of her followers happens to be Kutiman, a.k.a. Ophir Kutiel, an Israeli musician who lives on a kibbutz outside Tel Aviv and mashes up YouTube videos from all over the world to create new musical pieces. Princess Shaw had no idea that he had found videos.
Director Ido Haar goes back and forth between Shaw at work and on YouTube in New Orleans as Kutiman sits in his Tel Aviv apartment and watches Shaw’s performances in preparation to compose his work. He and Shaw do not yet know one another and Haar works to preserve the effect that events are being candidly shot and not recreated after the fact.
We do not get to now when Haar began filming Shaw whose life is at first presented in what would have to be several months before Kutiman’s compositions go on the net. As seen at her job, at a local open-mic night, and speaking with family members about her upcoming efforts to audition for “The Voice”, we sense Haar turning the screws on Shaw’s desires. In a sense this ruins the film and if you continue to read, you will understand what I mean.
When Shaw went to Atlanta to check out the music scene and meet some relatives and she learns of the chronic sexual abuse by her mother’s boyfriend when she was a child. As shot and edited, the scene involves Shaw and two female relatives, each of whom comfort one another and shed tears of pain over the past trauma as well as tears of joy that they have persevered. Haar’s presence lingers as a question the film never addresses and is especially imperative since this moment comes before the public release of Kutiman’s work. It is curious that Haar was there in the first place and we want to understand if he had prior knowledge of Kutiman’s work before its release. I am curious to know when this became a documentary. There is something missing here.
The final third of the film confirms that this is an underdog narrative. Kutiman’s videos get the attention of the New York Times and other national outlets and this brings about a demand for a handful of concerts. Shaw hops a flight to Tel Aviv, where she prepares with Kutiman and other band members for a show. We see that Haar’s filmmaking has no essential narrative information, particularly the economic specifics of what Shaw’s sudden (and relative) fame entails. Specifically, it’s not clear how much she’s being paid for her work, or even if at all. The first third of the film states that Shaw lives in poverty and is unable to keep the lights on in her cramped apartment yet this seems to be forgotten later. A passport and airfare to Israel are not cheap.
On the other hand this is a film that portrays the difficulty of overcoming childhood abuse and deprivation making it a sad but uplifting film. Samantha channels her pain and disappointments into songs she writes and sings on YouTube and we learn that she was neglected as a child by her mother and sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend.
The filmmakers chose Montgomery wisely; the depth of her personal pain and the earnestness of her striving and optimism give this movie substance it might otherwise lack. According to Montgomery, director Haar originally followed several of Kutiman’s YouTube “collaborators.” Slowly this film became a story about Montgomery, Kutiman, and their beautiful relationship. Kutiman deserves credit for the joy he brought Montgomery by appreciating her art, by enhancing it, and by being inspired by it. This is what Montgomery who is poor, undereducated, and lonely wanted. Watching the tears of joy flow from her eyes when she hears Kutiman’s version of her music but there are still difficult questions. Kutiman neither pays nor asks the permission of his many “collaborators.” This free use of artistic works uploaded to the Internet expresses the philosophy of the free culture movement, which objects to stringent copyright laws and other exercises of ownership and financial control of art. Yet the irony here is that, in some sense, Kutiman’s efforts to use others’ work and polish it into better, more marketable art makes him the kind of person that many talented but financially naïve artists look for to promote their work. It’s not that Kutiman exploits them financially. It’s just that these are real people who are attached to the work he collects and uses, so you can’t help but feel that they ought to be asked permission. On the other side, in Montgomery’s case, Kutiman’s appreciation marked the first time she ever felt encouraged in her art by someone she respects. Because of that it is hard not to love Kutiman for the hope and self-respect he gives her. We are left with an unanswered and valid question— if there is a marketplace demand for their collaborations, will Montgomery make enough to quit her day job. The movie does not tell us Montgomery announces that she and Kutiman collaborated on an album that’s nearing release.
We get a look at Samantha’s as a young single woman struggling to find an outlet for her voice. , She tries to make the best of a troubling job and difficult living situation and she uses singing as mean of self-expression and personal connection. Her efforts to generate a career out of performance often disappoints and she frequently plays to empty clubs on amateur nights and a chance to audition for “The Voice” flops.