What Is Real in the YouTube World of 'Presenting Princess Shaw'?
Presenting Princess Shaw simultaneously exposes and obscures the process of documentary-making.
“Where’s that young man that came in with you? Where’s he from?” The woman who asks this question is off-screen, as you look down a hallway in a New Orleans nursing home, wall-mounted lamps receding into the distance, the camera low. “He’s real,” comes the answer, also off-screen. At this point, you see a caregiver’s legs, in purple scrubs, walk toward you. It's Samantha Montgomery, who explains, “He’s a filmmaker, and he’s making a film about YouTubers. I have videos on YouTube and he saw ‘em and he contacted me.”
Here Presenting Princess Shaw begins to pose a question: what is real, or more carefully, what does it mean to be real? And how might that intersect with fiction? The film -- currently airing on PBS' POV series and online -- now cuts to Montgomery’s face, per her YouTube page, as she records her request to her fans, the “YouTubers” she asks for help. She’s uploading her a cappella song, and, as she puts it, "if you have a beat, please let me know."
Montgomery is 38-years-old and calls herself Princess Shaw. The scene cuts from her cell phone screen in close up to her YouTube page on someone else’s monitor. The camera stands back, showing the computer on a desk to the left and a man in his kitchen to the right. Ophir Kutiel (a producer who calls himself Kutiman), has his back to you, leaning over his sink. He’s listening, as you listen.
“This song is my song, and I wrote it, okay?” Her face, his back, her face, turned briefly away from her own camera as she prepares to perform. “It is called,” she says, “‘Backwards.’” And then she sings.
It appears a magical moment, somehow, incredibly captured by filmmaker Ido Haar. On cue, Princess Shaw asks for help and the Israeli remix artist Kutiman hears her and answers. The film goes follows both individuals. On one track, you see Montgomery as she struggles, performing at open mics in New Orleans, auditioning for The Voice in Atlanta, offering earnest self-assessments for her YouTube fans, confessing her difficult background, uncertainty, and determination to go on. On the other, the film takes you back to Tel Aviv, as Kutiman pauses in his kitchen and approaches his computer monitor, which reveals her clip has had 38 views. He sits down and taps keys.
As the documentary cuts back and forth between worlds, it sets Kutiman’s work alongside Montgomery’s. She labors in the nursing home, even to get to work, once the tires are stolen off her car, the handheld camera following her efforts. At the same time, Kutiman is making art out of the song she underlines is her own, “I wrote it” -- the camera underscores his focus and precision, framing him in doorways or by the light of his monitor. While both subjects are aware of the camera, her relationship to it looks spontaneous, as she talks to it or walks in and out of frame. Kutiman’s performance is more formal and composed, an apt indication of his aesthetic, his control.
As different as these characters may seem, one of them knows they’re headed to collaboration. For Kutiman is coming up with a mix of another of Montgomery’s songs, “Give It Up”, combining it with found instrumentals to produce a track he then makes available on YouTube under his name, recognized for this kind of work. This is what he does, you know, because the film opens on a scene at the Guggenheim, where he leads an orchestral performance of another of his remixes. “None of the musicians participating in the project knows they are participating in it,” reads a title card that introduces this event.
The film presents this as a fact, text on the screen, leaving it to you to wonder about what it means to make art -- and a living -- out of other people’s work. This isn’t to say the film doesn’t engage the question, but it does so in a way that raises more questions. For even as Kutiman understands his part in the film’s narrative, and that his selection of Montgomery’s video has made her visible to the filmmakers, she knows only what she’s told, that Haar is “making a film about YouTubers”.
Her not knowing allows for all kinds of anticipated drama. The camera can wait for her story to develop as you know it will. It can invite your sympathy for travails, her late night conversations with her fans on YouTube. It can observe her performance for a newspaper vendor on the street in Atlanta. A brief, lovely demonstration of her joy in singing, as well as his impressed reaction, a show poignant and ephemeral.
You also see the camera set up to watch her walk past her car, tireless, in her driveway, the angle low and dismal. His camera can also be close on Montgomery’s face when she walks outdoors, then spots, on her cell phone, that Kutiman’s video -- her song -- is going viral. She’s thrilled and overjoyed, tearful at the realization that her dreams might come true, that she might be able to sing for a living, even to be a star.
The moment is gorgeous and exuberant, and it’s impossible not to share in it, and perhaps to understand how so many viewers have called it “uplifting”. But you’re also aware of that camera, which makes Montgomery’s performances -- for her internet fans, her patients at the nursing home, and Harr too -- all elements remixed in the film. That remix shapes a trajectory, invites identification with her struggle, presents her as “Princess Shaw”, mesmeric, self-aware, alternately disappointed and hopeful.
This is, of course, the art and business of documentary, to impose order on chaotic experience, structure narratives, conjure viewing pleasures. Presenting Princess Shaw simultaneously exposes and obscures this process. In that remix, in showing you a truth that it doesn’t reveal to her, the film secures your participation and also implies your responsibility.
Social media are full of stories and bits of lives, moments that seem magical and moments that call out for your commentary or intervention. You tell your story every day through social media, whether posting or reading or selecting your follows and likes.
“None of the musicians participating in the project knows they are participating in it.” How does this matter in the storytelling, who knows and who doesn’t, who’s uplifted and who’s not? It may be that the film doesn’t need to know it’s participating in making this point. Still, the point is made. Stories, even the true ones, are also always fictions.