Engaging and entertaining

Two documentary gems from Israel deal with problems of young people today.

By
April 6, 2016 16:34
‘Presenting Princess Shaw’

‘Presenting Princess Shaw’. (photo credit: PR)

Two extraordinary and very original Israeli documentaries — Barak and Tomer Heymann’s Who’s Gonna Love Me Now? and Ido Haar’s Presenting Princess Shaw — are opening this week, and both are far more dramatic and enjoyable than most feature films.

These two films, both of which take place in Israel and abroad, will have great appeal for viewers all over the world.

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The Heymann brothers’ touching Who’s Gonna Love Me Now? had its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in February and won the Audience Award for the Panorama Section. It tells the story of Saar, a gay Israeli man who has been living in London for many years. Saar has had to reevaluate his life after finding out he is HIV positive several years ago, and the film chronicles his efforts to reconcile with his religious, strongly nationalist and socially conservative family in Israel.

He has many friends in London, and he sings in the London Gay Men’s Chorus, whose members have become a kind of second family to him. But in spite of the freedom and comfort he has found in London, it still isn’t home. His friends there know and love him, but on some level they can never completely understand him. He has a complicated relationship with his family, who relate to him with a peculiarly Israeli mixture of unconditional love and harsh judgment. When his mother visits him in London, she frequently sobs, thinking of his HIV diagnosis, which is no longer a death sentence but makes his life difficult.

The fact that he admits he contracted HIV during a period of promiscuity, after he was reeling from a broken love affair, seems to prove to his homophobic, politically incorrect (to put it mildly) family that he is being punished for his sexual inclination.

But his family is utterly guileless and honest about their feelings, and they express openly what a great many people, particularly but not only in the religious community, still feel about homosexuality. Their honesty creates a basis for a dialogue between them and Saar that eventually leads to a gradual but meaningful reconciliation. Had they hidden their feelings, he would not have been able to get close to them again.

The juxtaposition of the religious kibbutz where Saar grew up and his London life, especially with the chorus, is masterfully presented. The Heymann brothers, who have made more than 25 documentaries, including last year’s Mr. Gaga, about Batsheva founder Ohad Naharin, have used their gift for winning the trust of their subjects to get the participants to open up for the camera with rare candor. Everyone will be able to identify with Saar and his family, whether they have dealt with the same issues or nor. Who’s Gonna Love Me Now? is both entertaining and powerful.

Ido Haar’s Presenting Princess Shaw is a moving look at how the human spirit and technology can intersect to produce art, a Cinderella story for the Digital Age. Samantha Montgomery is a YouTube artist from New Orleans who sings her own songs a cappella and goes by the name Princess Shaw.

A lonely woman who suffered horrific sexual and physical abuse in her childhood (her mother’s boyfriend raped her for years, and her mother beat her when she complained), she works as an aide in a nursing home by day, but her passion is for creating her emotionally raw and revealing songs. She also posts a video diary online. When she goes to a local talent showcase at a bar, she sings her heart out to an empty house. Her most popular YouTube video has fewer than 90 views.

But in spite of all of this, she doesn’t lose heart. Her hair is dyed flaming red, and she keeps writing and posting songs.

A world away, Israeli musician and producer Ophir Kutiel, known as Kutiman, discovers her music. Kutiman creates compositions made up of dozens of videos posted on YouTube and edited together (one view of Kutiman’s work is worth a thousand words of description, and you can check out at https://www.youtube.com/user/kutiman ). His work has gained international recognition, and in a scene from the movie he is feted at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Kutiman lives a simple life on a kibbutz and does not charge money for his videos. The artists (none of whom has ever objected to the use of their music, according to the film) simply find out their YouTube videos are included after he posts them. When he discovered Princess Shaw’s videos, he made them the centerpiece of several of his latest “Thru You” works.

Director Ido Haar initially thought of making a movie about a few of Kutiman’s YouTube musicians, but after he got to know Princess Shaw’s music and story, he decided to focus on her. He documents her touchingly hopeful life at the beginning and is there with her when she learns that her work has gone viral via Kutiman’s video. In a short time, the 90 YouTube views have risen to more than a million. This doesn’t make her rich, but it gets her voice heard, giving her the recognition she craves Princess Shaw has been traveling the world, including making several trips to Israel, to perform at screenings of the film. Watching her transformation in the movie (hearing her onstage live, for those who have had the pleasure of being at one of her performances) is like seeing a flower bloom. Where once she was awkward and isolated, eating junk food alone in her tiny apartment and recording her songs on an iPhone, now she is a relaxed, confident performer, urging the audience to sing and dance. At a recent screening at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, the usually jaded audience gave her and Kutiman’s band a standing ovation.

Both Who’s Gonna Love Me Now? and Presenting Princess Shaw will engage and entertain you, and they will stay with you long after you see them.


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