The Internet is a mixed bag, to be sure, but in the right hands it can make the world a smaller, warmer place.
In his unflinching yet heartwarming documentary, Presenting Princess Shaw, Israeli filmmaker Ido Haar follows African American caregiver Samantha Montgomery’s pursuit of her long-shot dream of making it as a singer.
Unbeknownst to the New Orleans resident, her self-recorded YouTube videos under the stage name Princess Shaw caught the attention of an obsessive, bearded kibbutznik named Ophir Kutiel. Kutiman, as he calls himself, has achieved recognition by combining individual amateur performances he finds on YouTube into seamless, addictive songs.
“This story couldn’t happen 15, 20 years ago,” Haar says over the phone from Los Angeles. “It’s quite amazing that two people, or many people, in different places around the world can meet and create together. It brings a lot of optimism, I think.”
Presenting Princess Shaw is available on demand.
“I know Kutiman for many years, and for many years I wanted to do something inspired by his work,” the 42-year-old filmmaker says.
The mash-up artist and producer is an unexpectedly minor character in the film, though. We occasionally glimpse him at his home in Tze’elim (in southern Israel, not far from Gaza) clicking away at his desktop computer, having a solitary thoughtful cigarette, or in a recording studio.
Undeniably talented and an intriguing figure, Kutiman is too reserved and reclusive to carry a film. No one can say that about Samantha Montgomery.
“I was very inspired by her music when Kutiman showed me the song ‘Give It Up’ he was working on,” Haar recalls. “I saw her YouTube channel, and I really loved the directness and honesty, and how much courage she has. I got in touch with her and she was willing to join in this journey of this film.”
Haar conceived of the film as a trot around the globe visiting several musicians who appear in Kutiman’s work, but decided instead to focus exclusively on Montgomery. He didn’t clue her in about Kutiman, however.
“I told her that I’m doing this film about musicians that upload their work on YouTube,” Haar says.
Consequently, the audience knows more than Princess Shaw, and we take singular pleasure in the moment when she learns that “Give It Up” has gone viral.
Haar’s previous documentaries include 9 Star Hotel, a wrenching portrait of Palestinian construction workers dodging Israeli authorities in order to reach their jobs that aired as part of the PBS “P.O.V.” documentary series in 2008.
“I did political films that were very much relevant to Israeli society, but this film is very different and much more universal,” Haar says.
He shot Presenting Princess Shaw himself, which gives the film a casualness and intimacy suited to Montgomery’s hard-knocks struggle. Working in America wasn’t a big shock for Haar, who spent time in New York and San Francisco as a visiting artist in residence earlier this decade.
Presenting Princess Shaw climaxes with the singer meeting Kutiman in Israel and performing in Tel Aviv. But instead of s crowd-pleasing ending, Haar leaves us wondering whether the show will be the high point of her success or if her star will continue to rise.
“It was a very beautiful moment in Tel Aviv, but we all went back to our lives,” Haar says. “Life is not always as we want it. It was important to me not to finish with that kind of feeling. There is a success, but it’s much more complicated.”
Indeed, more chapters remain to be written. When Princess Shaw returned to Israel for the film’s theatrical release, she and Kutiman recorded an album of original songs.
Michael Fox is a film critic based in San Francisco.