Not just another Cinderella

Ido Haar’s ‘Presenting Princess Shaw’ is not a sentimental story about the transition from anonymity to stardom, but a film about a tenacious woman who fights to make her voice heard.

Aspiring singer Samantha Montgomery has broken through with the help of an Israeli musician and filmmaker (photo credit: COURTESY MAGNOLIA PICTURES)
Aspiring singer Samantha Montgomery has broken through with the help of an Israeli musician and filmmaker
THERE WILL be a special guest at Israel’s Academy Awards ceremony, the Ophir, in the southern city of Ashdod, on September 22. Her name is Samantha Montgomery, an American caregiver at a New Orleans home for the elderly.
Montgomery is an aspiring musician whose a cappella Youtube clips caught the attention of Israeli musician Ophir Kutiel, aka Kutiman, who orchestrated them into internationally acclaimed viral hits. Under her stage name, Montgomery now stars in one of this year’s Israeli Oscar’s Best Documentary nominees – director Ido Haar’s film “Presenting Princess Shaw.”
The 39-year-old American musician, who is currently in Europe to debut the film’s distribution in Switzerland’s theaters and to introduce it at the opening of a film festival in Budapest will come over to Israel for a swift visit, to sing at the Ophir ceremony.
Judging by the film’s success in Israeli commercial theaters, she will be warmly received even if the film about her journey from anonymity to global recognition of her talents and her mesmerizing, uplifting personality does not win on the night.
Apart from performing in open mic nights and auditioning – unsuccessfully – for reality TV shows, she has also been posting selfie- videos on Youtube, Facebook and Instagram.
Shot on her smartphone, they feature her songs, thoughts, and even upfront pleas for recognition.
Kutiman, a 34-year-old Jerusalem-born musician, son of two prominent Israeli academics, received global applause with his 2009 Thru You project, in which he fuses different Youtube amateur musical clips into complete creations. This meticulous audio-video version of ready-made art won him a spot on Time Magazine’s annual 50 Best Inventions list. Kutiman first came across Montgomery’s clips three years ago, when he started working on the second collection for this project, which he titled “Thru You Too.”
The film follows Montgomery’s efforts to break through and – without her knowing so at that stage – documents Kutiman’s work on the mash-up clip of her songs, including the moment he uploads her first hit to his Youtube channel, and the subsequent moment of her realization of what had just happened.
Kutiman does not seek permission from the artists whose clips he samples. He nevertheless credits them with links to their original snippets. He also does not sell or commercialize those viral orchestrations; his Youtube channel and his website are blocked to sponsors and commercials.
His manager, Boaz Morad, told the Israeli press in June this year that although at the beginning of the “Thru You” project both he and Kutiman were worried by the legal implications of a possible breach of copyright, the project has never been entangled in litigation. “Part of the whole thing is that Kutiman works with musicians who uploaded their clips to seek recognition of their talents,” Morad explained to Haaretz.
“Thru You” remixes may not have been a direct money spinner for Kutiman, but they did land him lucrative contracts. Including commissions to create commercials for different organizations and companies – from a Jewish culture festival in Krakow to American tool brand Craftsman and the German giant corporation Siemens.
In a 2011 interview with now Labor MK Stav Shaffir, published in the online magazine Xnet a couple of months before the eruption of the Israeli social justice protest that catapulted the then young journalist into politics, Kutiman noted that from the very beginning of “Thru You” he’d decided “not to make money from the project.” Capitalizing on something “which belongs to everybody,” he explained to Shaffir, “would be swinishness.”
SOMEWHAT OVERWHELMED by the interest in him, Kutiman eventually left his rented flat in south Tel Aviv for the sake of a serene, reclusive lifestyle in Kibbutz Tze’elim in the Negev. It was there where Haar, a longtime friend of the not-too-talkative musician, decided three years ago to follow up on Kutiman’s second phase of his “Thru You” project, tagged “Thru You Too.”
Montgomery’s tenacity – a quality which Haar points out as proof that hers is the opposite of a Cinderella story as there is nothing passive about her – is well portrayed in one of the film’s first episodes at an open mic night in New Orleans. Montgomery ends up singing in front of an almost empty club after being scheduled as one of the last performers of the evening. Acknowledging this fact with a brief statement of “How is everyone doing? Well, the ones who are here,” she then gives an energetic, competent performance worthy of a full stadium, not an empty club.
But tenacity is just one of the qualities which makes Montgomery’s story so powerful.
Alongside her outstanding talents as a singer and a songwriter, her never dwindling wellspring of empathy and her sober gaze into the realities of her life make her a protagonist who presents – and represents – much more than a will to succeed as a musician.
It is the film’s examination of Montgomery’s character that separates it from the cynical world of reality TV. Director Haar tells The Jerusalem Report that “Samantha’s story is the antonym of reality TV’s Cinderella stories. Because she is someone who really works hard to get recognition.
Yes – she does try the Reality way too – she auditions for The Voice – but she doesn’t really get noticed there, despite her great talent and her musical abilities. So in this regard, the film is also a comment about today’s music industry.”
Princess Shaw indeed is not a Cinderella story. It is a story about a woman who insists on being heard, and it is a story about much more than music, fame or glory.
A year after its debut at the Jerusalem Film Festival in summer 2015, where it won an Honorary Mention award, it has already been distributed to commercial theaters in the US and Israel and has been showcased in dozens of festivals, including last year’s Toronto Film Festival, and sold on platforms such as iTunes and Amazon.
This September it was bought by the online streaming giant Netflix.
“When Kutiman started with his Youtube project, I already thought about these people, who find out one day that they’re a part of it,” Haar tells the Report. “Then, when he showed me the new phase of that project I felt that the time was ripe for me to try filming something about that topic.”
Haar’s initial idea was to create a documentary about various musicians whose Youtube clips entered Kutiman’s orchestrations.
All of them, of course, were oblivious to the fact that while they’re leading their day-to-day life, their filmed musical bits are woven somewhere in the northern corner of Israel’s Negev desert into an upcoming prestigiously recognized web hit. “The concept was to follow them before and after the upload of ‘Thru You Too,’” Haar says. He therefore contacted some of these musicians via their social media channels, introduced himself as a documentary director who is doing a film about Youtube artists, and sought their permission to accompany and shoot them for his movie.
MONTGOMERY WAS the first Youtuber he met with for this cinematic endeavor, and on their second meeting – both conducted in New Orleans – he decided to focus exclusively on her. “I also met with other musicians in the US and UK. All of them were as tremendously talented as she is. But with her, I had a strong hunch that this is it.” In addition, he remarks, smiling, “at that stage, I also felt that my initial idea was slightly too megalomaniac. It demanded too many resources and energies.”
What came next, he says, was a year of flying back and forth from Tel Aviv to New Orleans to film Montgomery, sometimes on very short notice. Montgomery’s inclination to share on her social media platforms almost anything, as the film clearly conveys, meant for Haar a routine of “getting up in the morning and checking Samantha’s Instagram channel, thus learning what her plans are. If, for instance, there are auditions for ‘The Voice’ or if she plans on a trip to Atlanta” – both are actual examples – “I know I should take a flight.”
Managing such a schedule, let alone under a low budget, was made possible by the fact that Haar is mostly a one-person orchestra. He shoots, records and edits his films almost entirely by himself. Occasionally, he notes, with an additional crew member.
Between flights he edited the materials he’d just shot, and also drove to Tze’elim to film Kutiman’s work – mostly in nocturnal, beautiful and pensive scenes in which the lean, stoic musician barely utters a word. This comes as a stark contradiction to Montgomery, who speaks openly, mainly on her social media platforms, about everything, including about the darkest moments of past and present.
As the film unfolds, so does her life story: her past, being raped as a child by her mother’s boyfriend, and then being severely beaten by her mother, who preferred to believe her boyfriend. And her present, where despite leading a modest lifestyle in a small apartment in a rundown neighborhood, she still can barely pay the electricity bills.
The many articles and reviews about “Presenting Princess Shaw” mark the moment in which Montgomery finds out about Kutiman’s posting of his orchestrated version for one of her songs, “Give It Up,” as the peak of the movie. It is, indeed, a lovely scene, and the almost immediate jump from dozens of views of her a cappella vlog to the million views of the complete video is definitely an elevating moment.
Haar – unlike his protagonist, who wasn’t aware of the filmmaker’s full agenda nor had she even heard of Kutiman – was looking from the start to catch this moment, and fully acknowledges the ethical facet of filming it. He tried, he says, simply to catch cinematically a moment that would have happened anyway. Montgomery herself has remarked in numerous interviews that she fully understands Haar’s conduct.
“I believe that it was essential for grasping the film’s true spirit,” she told Haaretz earlier this year.
Nevertheless, it is another scene that actually introspects about the film’s narrative even better. In that scene Montgomery, during a trip to Atlanta, reaches out to relatives whom she hasn’t met since her childhood. The relatives warmly commend her for having the energy to reconnect with them and the three women have a heart-to heart discussion into the night about the struggle to survive such violence. Her second cousin – referring to the family’s history along with the fractured social structure that leaves many African-American women dependent and neglected – notes that “we were always conditioned to not talk about shit like that.”
THIS IS not Haar’s first documentary that tries to present repressed voices. His 2006 documentary “9 Star Hotel” portrayed the routines of illegal Palestinian workers from the West Bank who, prior to the completion of the separation barrier, entered Israel to make a living by building Modi’in.
During the day, the Palestinian men constructed, cast and plastered the bourgeois residences of the city. At night, they hid in the distant hills where they were repeatedly hunted down and chased by police and other security services. The men ponder their hopes, fears and regrets, and critically scrutinize Israeli and Palestinian societies alike, fully aware of the unhopeful future ahead of them.
“Indeed,” he remarks, “in three of my movies, all the protagonists are people with lots of potential, with passion for life, who under other life circumstances could have done very different things. This theme, the illusion of free choice, is definitely something that interests me.” It’s not a coincidence, he adds, that “Presenting Princess Shaw” also sheds light “on the notion that so many talents are doomed never to be heard. I always have this fear that in actuality, the really interesting artists, the most creative people, are the ones who hadn’t broken through.”
Haar, 42, was raised in the small village of Moshav Shilat, near the later built town of Modi’in. His full-length cinematic debut after his graduation from the Sam Spiegel Film School in Jerusalem was a very personal travel film titled “Melting Siberia,” about his Latvian-born mother’s search for her Siberian father, whom she had never met.
Reluctant to talk about his private life as we meet in his specious yet simply furnished apartment in Tel Aviv, Haar admits that his young self’s overexposure may have something to do with his unwillingness to discuss his personal life publically.
“I was very young when I filmed ‘Melting Siberia,’” he laughs. “I didn’t really know what I was doing.” But on a more serious note he adds that he does not regret this experience.
“It taught me the actual meaning of putting a camera in front of somebody, and how exposed that person becomes.”
His efforts since to protect his protagonists from his own potential cinematic manipulation, he says, may be attributed to this initial experience as a filmmaker.
In the year since the release of “Presenting Princess Shaw,” Montgomery took time off from her regular work at the home for the elderly and promoted the film in the US and abroad. She also recorded her first album with Kutiman, which, Haar says, will hopefully be released in the coming year. She continues to vlog on her Youtube and Instagram channels, soberly keeping her feet tight on the ground and her red-dyed head upright.
In the film’s final scene, she walks in blue scrubs to another shift at the home for the elderly back in New Orleans. Haar then interlaces into that scene one of her vlogs. A charming snippet in which, talking directly into the smartphone’s camera, Princess declares her feminist humor and fully aware self-cognition, “I behave the way I do because I’m me. I can never be you. You can never be me. You see the red hair? I’m a vixen. Red, red, red!”