Without the King



Chances are, most Americans have never even heard of Swaziland,
the subject of Michael Skolnik’s documentary now playing an exclusive engagement at New York’s Quad Cinema. But this tiny country has its fascinations, albeit of the tragic variety. The sole remaining absolute monarchy on the African continent, it is ruled by a king who lives in absolute splendor while his subjects lead lives of abject desperation.

The statistics alone tell the story: an average life expectancy of 31 years; an HIV/AIDS infection rate of nearly 43%; and so on. Meanwhile, the young King Mswati III, interviewed extensively in the film, keeps a separate palace for each of his 14 wives; travels around the world on his own private jet; maintains a fleet of limousines, and has a personal fortune estimated in the billions. He chooses his wives at the annual Reed Dance, in which thousands of topless virgins dance for his delectation.

The filmmaker dramatically alternates his focus between the jovial king’s opulent lifestyle and footage of the starving citizens engaging in such activities as scouring dumps for food, which often amounts to discarded animal intestines.

Although the country does have a constitution of sorts, opposing political parties are banned. But, as the film — distributed by First Run Features —well depicts, this hasn’t stopped various intrepid underground groups from attempting to foment a revolution.

The filmmaker’s cinema verite style tends to give the proceedings a somewhat rambling, discursive quality, and his free access to one of the king’s daughters, the rap-loving Princess Sikhanyiso, results in several extended sequences — such as when she moves to Los Angeles to attend college — that are colorful without being particularly illuminating.

The sort of true-life tale that is stranger than fiction, “Without the King” is of great interest despite its stylistic flaws.