David Swerdlick

Lizzie Grubman turned her pocket aces into a nut flush by mixing her talents and ambition with her family connections.


Airtime: Thursdays, 10:30pm ET
Cast: Lizzie Grubman, Ali, Kelly, Millie, Rachel
Network: MTV
You know there's those who make it,
And there's those who have it made.
-- The Gemz, Lizzie Grubman PR clients

Ever looked inside a souvenir snow globe and wondered if inside of it was a tiny world with miniature people who were looking at their own mini-mini snow globe? Well, MTV's PoweRGirls is either the snow globe or the snow globe inside the snow globe, depending on your perspective. A six-episode run that captures the day-to-day of celebutante and PR star Lizzie Grubman and four of her protégées, it's both a case study of the state of reality TV and a look at the New York A-list through the eyes of those who help keep them that way.

Let's cut to the chase: PoweRGirls is pretty boring. The team consists of young women who, as a group, achieve "TV diversity" -- two blonds, a brunette, and a Black girl. Led by Lizzie Grubman of Lizzie Grubman PR, they're so dedicated to climbing to the top of the New York PR world that in the first episode, they ditch work to go shopping for new outfits instead of finishing the guest list for the opening of Ruby Falls, a plush nightclub. Episode Two is dedicated to Kelly, whose idol is Paris Hilton. In Episode Three, the girls have lost the Ruby Falls account, and Lizzie says, "You can't cry over spilled milk."

While we generally think of PR people as being behind the scenes, Grubman is up front, both in the show and on the Manhattan and East Hampton scenes. here's the question: is she inside the snow globe, the client of a bigger, anonymous PR firm that has set up the MTV show as a way of enhancing her profile? Or is she holding her own snow globe, looking inward, like a puppet-master who shrewdly allows the cameras to follow her around, with the predictable result that it will increase air time for her clients? (For one instance, Ja Rule, appearing in three of the first four episodes.)

How did 33-year-old Lizzie wind up as the publicist for some of the hottest pop and hip-hop acts in the U.S.? To start, she is the daughter of Allen Grubman, music-industry lawyer supreme. It doesn't hurt to have a hook-up in the business. But Lizzie also knows how to sweet-talk actors and singers, and they keep coming back for more. If there's any credit to be given to Lizzie Grubman, it is that she didn't just sit back in East Hampton spending daddy's money. She turned her pocket aces into a nut flush by mixing her talents and ambition with her family connections and coming up with a profitable business and becoming one of New York's most sought-after party throwers.

This subject matter has potential, but PoweRGirls disappoints. It is, in a way, a composite of other reality shows. MTV's reality benchmark, The Real World, has been setting up cast members in "cool" jobs for several seasons. In Hawaii, the cast did promotions for Local Motion, the venerable surf gear brand. In Las Vegas, they worked for The Palms hotel/casino, and in Paris, they wrote travelogues for Frommer's. Now, though, the job is no longer a component of the show. It is the show. Think: The Apprentice meets Making the Band, with a little Gastineau Girls thrown in.

Perhaps PoweRGirls reflects a certain cultural temperature: no longer are we content just to watch rich and famous people on TV. We want to watch rich and famous people doing something. Last year, GQ declared that Paris Hilton isn't even famous for being famous; she's famous for being over. Lizzie Grubman is apparently famous for making other famous people more famous, and that's good enough to get her a show on MTV.

As the self-publicized arbiter of all things under 25, MTV would have us believe that all girls who are really smoking hot aspire to be the next Christina Milian or Lindsay Lohan. So, the corollary for girls who are merely somewhat cute and sassy will take the next best thing, a fab career as publicist to the stars. If PoweRGirls was the Jennifer Lopez "Get Right" video, these girls would be the character with the blond wig and nerd-chic glasses sitting in the corner of the club sipping a mixed drink through the stirrer-straws.

On the PoweRGirls page on, Lizzie is doing weekly recaps and commentary about the episodes as they air. In her first installment, she writes, "First, a PR 101 Lesson: Always keep your cool!" It's the moral of the first episode, as the girls didn't finish alphabetizing the VIP guest list for the club opening, and one of Lizzie's veteran employees has to improvise at Ja Rule's publicity event when the record label fails to provide 8x10s for him to autograph. Contrast that with the fact that neither the show nor MTV's website has yet to mention Grubman's 2002 conviction for the 2001 incident in which she injured several bystanders when she backed her Mercedes Benz SUV into them, in front of an exclusive Hamptons night spot. She served 37 days of a 51 day sentence, and went back to running Lizzie Grubman PR. PoweRGirls shows that she's kept her cool. And whoever is handling her PR is doing a pretty good job.

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Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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