There’s nothing like a Cinderella story unfolding in your own backyard. Israeli filmmaker Ido Haar’s documentary Presenting Princess Shaw tells the unlikely tale of New Orleans-based YouTube sensation Samantha Montgomery (who goes by the name Princess Shaw), a talented singer/songwriter who was plucked from obscurity by musician, producer and digital collage specialist Ophir Kutiel, known as Kutiman.
Like the 2012 Oscar-winning film Searching for Sugar Man, Presenting Princess Shaw is the rare music-centered documentary aimed at general audiences rather than music fans. Princess Shaw’s moving story is one of perseverance and self-discovery as she finds salvation from terrible abuses suffered in childhood through her artistic life in adulthood. Her charisma is irresistible and her eventual recognition and success are easy to enjoy.
But Presenting Princess Shaw began with Kutiman, Haar’s longtime friend and fellow Israeli. Kutiman has become known internationally for what are often described as YouTube mashups. He gathers, manipulates and edits together bits of music and video posted on the site by amateur musicians around the world, creating unified and compelling pieces of music he then uploads back to YouTube.
Kutiman does not contact the musicians in advance or ask permission to use their work and accepts no advertising or other payment for the finished product. Before Haar came to New Orleans and came under Princess Shaw’s spell, he intended to make a documentary about a variety of international musicians who discover they are part of Kutiman’s global and uniquely digital-era collaboration.
Opening with a quote from the free culture movement, Haar’s film portrays Kutiman’s methods as representative of a utopian vision of shared creativity on the web. But the reality appears a bit more complicated. All the songs developed for Kutiman’s “YouTube album” Thru You Too (which includes Princess Shaw’s mesmerizing “Give It Up”) are built around a cappella performances of complete songs written by others.
As seen throughout the film, everyone from DJs to museum curators (Kutiman’s work has been adopted by the fine art world) credits Kutiman with creating the music. But his role may be more producer and accompanist than composer. It’s clear that Princess Shaw is thrilled by Kutiman’s development of her deeply personal songs and the resulting worldwide exposure. But by choosing not to address potential issues of ownership and cultural appropriation, Haar creates a film that’s more satisfying on an emotional level than an intellectual one.
The film divides screen time between Princess Shaw’s personal struggles in New Orleans and Kutiman’s seemingly solitary existence on an Israeli kibbutz crafting music and video on a computer. She bravely faces an open-mic audience of five or six people at Cafe Istanbul and bares her soul in conversation with her cousins. The loneliness experienced by two artists living 7,000 miles apart is a consistent but ultimately underdeveloped theme. More engaging is Princess Shaw’s remarkable voice, which has a subtle childlike quality that helped distinguish great singers from Judy Garland to Lucinda Williams.
During months of intermittent filming in New Orleans, Haar never told Princess Shaw about Kutiman or that her life was about to change. Instead, he told her he was making a documentary about YouTube performers. One could argue that the deception was crucial to his ability to tell Princess Shaw’s story in an accurate and organic way — or not. If nothing else, it allowed Haar to be present with his camera when Princess Shaw first discovered Kutiman’s reimagining of her music. It’s a wonderful moment to capture for posterity, if not an entirely honest one for the filmmaker.
The New Orleans Film Society will present the New Orleans premiere of Presenting Princess Shaw on Tuesday, May 31 at 7 p.m. at the Contemporary Arts Center. Princess Shaw will be present for an audience Q&A and live performance following the film (more info here). The film will begin its regular run at The Broad Theater on Friday, June 3 (more info here).