‘Thru You Princess’: TIFF Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Princess Shaw in 'Thru You Princess'
A soulful salute to a distinctly 21st-century phenomenon that's also an old-fashioned fairy tale come true.

Ido Haar's documentary unfolds the fascinating story of how a struggling nurse became a YouTube sensation.

Marking a refreshing break from the usually depressing rise-and-fall trajectories of so many music-themed documentaries, Israeli director Ido Haar's Thru You Princess is a pure positivity.  kick. The hook is that it's about two people - aspiring singer Princess Shaw and established Israeli musician-producer Kutiman – whoonlymeet for the first time towards the end of the film after Kutiman, like some kind of virtual-world fairy godmother, has transformed Princess' a cappella YouTube performances into lushly produced songs without her knowledge. Musical-minded viewers may feel a little frustrated that scant time is spent exploring mash-up master Kutiman's craftsmanship and free-use philosophy, but it's almost impossible not to be charmed by guileless, good-hearted Princess Shaw herself and her real-life Cinderella story.

Nevertheless, the relative obscurity of the artists involved will make this a slightly tricky commercial proposition. Kutiman has a cult following, but isn't exactly a household name yet outside of Israel and niche corners of the internet. But further festivals and niche distributors will surely take an interest after the film's strong reception at Toronto and Jerusalem's film festivals.

A musical prodigy from a young age, Kutiman (his real name is Ophir Kutiel) plays several conventional instruments but his real gift is for finding musical samples, usually from amateur performances on YouTube, and then suturing them together to make one looping, lolloping wall of sound, tunes that have elements of jazz, funk and soul especially, and disseminated for free. The finished products are then presented on YouTube, sometimes using split-screen techniques to show each of the individual contributions (the artists are credited whenever possible, but not paid). The whole shebang is part of his Thru You project, which has generated some 11 million hits so far.

Princess Shaw is the stage name for one Samantha Montgomery, a 39-year-old woman from Chicago originally. By day, she works with the elderly in a nursing home, but in her free time she attends open mic sessions as local clubs, and uploads videos of herself singing her own soulful, self-penned tunes to her YouTube channel. Although somewhat lonely since she split up with her girlfriend of eight years, and haunted by a traumatic, abusive childhood that she discusses on camera at one point, Princess is driven to keep pursuing her dream with irrepressible optimism. She attends local auditions for The Voice, and when that doesn't work out goes to Atlanta to check out the burgeoning music scene there.

It's never spelt out, but presumably director-DoP-editor Haar must have known before he started shooting Princess that back in Israel Kutiman was planning to use her voice as the basis of his next creation. She seems to think that Haar is just making a film about people with YouTube channels. Some viewers may feel a little uneasy watching her being almost "catfished" by the deception, even if it turns out to be a delightful surprise, and a real emotional money shot when it finally lands.  

Clearly shot on cheap, lightweight digital cameras, the final product looks a little rough on the big screen but that's fine since it's also part of the whole homemade aesthetic. The editing might have been a fraction tighter in the last 20 minutes, but since this stretch covers Princess' cathartic encounter with her secret admirer only a curmudgeon could begrudge time spent on this moment of triumph.

Production companies: A Yes Docu, Atzmor Productions presentation of a First Hand Films production
With: Samantha Montgomery ("Princess Shaw"), Ophir Kutiel ("Kutiman")
Director/cinematographer/editor: Ido Haar
Producer: Liran Atzmor
Executive producers: Esther van Messel, Gitte Hansen
Artistic advisor: Joelle Alexis
Sales: First Hand Films (International)/Submarine (US)

No rating, 80 minutes


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