In her latest YouTube entry, New Orleans care worker and singer Samantha Montgomery (pictured) – also known as Princess Shaw – sits alone in a dim room updating 301 subscribers about her life, periodically drifting in and out of a posh British accent and singing her latest song, arranged on the fly. The September 5 video had at press time just 15 views but after Saturday’s (September 12) international premiere of Ido Haar’s Thru You Princess at TIFF, that could very well change.
The cross-continental music doc centers on an unlikely friendship between Shaw, an African American hospital worker whose only stage is her YouTube channel, and Haar’s friend, Israeli musician and composer Ophir Kutiel (better known as Kutiman; pictured above, left), who two years ago discovered Shaw’s work on the platform.
“Something connects them besides the music, a kind of loneliness you can feel in both of them,” says Haar. “I think with Princess and Kutiman, they don’t necessarily play by the rules, but they manage to do something in their own way, and this is something that’s very powerful.”
Kutiman earned international acclaim for his 2009 YouTube project “Thru-You,” in which the musician combined videos of solo YouTubers playing musical instruments to create an arrangement using all the clips. Kutiman doesn’t seek each individual’s permission to use the tracks, but since he doesn’t set out to profit from the music commercially, there have so far been no complaints, says Haar. Two years ago, after discovering the gregarious Shaw, who writes her own songs and treats YouTube much like a diary-cum-recording studio, Kutiman began working on the follow-up project “Thru You Too,” which he showed to an awestruck Haar.
“I was asking myself, ‘Who are those singers and where do they come from?’ and when he showed me them, I started to dive into their YouTube channels,” the director tells realscreen. “With Princess, I tried to figure out anything about her.”
Once he decided to make a film about the “Thru You Too” musicians, Haar’s then-wife reached out to Shaw and explained the director wanted to meet her during an upcoming U.S. trip. When the pair finally crossed paths in New Orleans, the filmmaker admits Shaw was “very suspicious” – “She didn’t know why this guy from the other side of the world was there,” he laughs – before warming up to the idea of being profiled. The more time they spent together, Haar explains, the more he realized Shaw had to be his sole focus.
The only catch, however, was that Kutiman’s muse couldn’t yet know about her major role in his “Thru You Too” project, which would later clock more than two million hits.
“I was imagining what will happen if I’m not filming. [Kutiman] will release the song and she will see it – what will be her reaction?” explains Haar. “I wanted this moment. It’s what I was interested in the whole time: about all those people who didn’t know Kutiman was on the other side of the world [making] this music for them, with them.”
The film – which was a Central Pitch presentation at November’s IDFA Forum, as reported by realscreen – is a coproduction between Israeli channel Yes Docu, France 4 and Canada’s CBC, and has already been picked up by France Télévisions, CBC, Sweden’s SVT and the Netherlands’ VPRO. It is represented by Zurich-headquartered distributor First Hand Films.
Haar spent a year traveling between Israel and the U.S., where he would spend about 10 days every two to three months, following Shaw around to work and poorly attended concerts she had booked for herself. As such, the majority of the film centers on the hustling singer and her struggle to forge a music career and work through a difficult past, rather than on the Kibbutz-dwelling Kutiman. In one of the most compelling scenes, the director accompanies her to Atlanta to visit little-known relatives, where Shaw bravely and candidly describes the physical and sexual abuse she says she experienced as a child.
Asked about the ethics of Shaw’s unwitting involvement in “Thru You Too,” Haar says he was rarely concerned because of Shaw’s existing online presence, and her clear desire to use YouTube to draw producers and secure work for herself.
“That’s what she wanted the most and that’s why she put all the songs on YouTube,” he says. “She really wanted to be heard and she wants to make music and she wants people to work with. And we were in dialogue all the time. The way I work, she knew the whole time that if there was something she was uncomfortable with, I wouldn’t shoot it.”
Still, Haar admits he was very nervous when Kutiman released “Thru You Too,” and was anxious not only about Shaw’s reaction, but how he would capture the pivotal moment, when the singer discovered her high-profile fan across the world.
“I knew Kutiman would upload it and then it would be on The New York Times,” says the director. “I knew he’d link to her original song, so I knew people would start writing to her. This is what usually happens.”
There’s little doubt that the outcome of “Thru You Too” will draw comparisons to Malik Bendjelloul’s 2012 doc Searching for Sugar Man. But, though Haar admits he loves that film and was perhaps influenced on a “subconscious” level, he points out that unlike the heavily stylized Sugar Man - which uses animation, archival footage and numerous interviews - Thru You Princess draws mainly on YouTube clips and footage from New Orleans and Israel that is more naturalistic in style and tone.
“I’m almost not doing any interviews and I’m trying to catch the moment and be there. In editing, it was trying to find the right combination of YouTube and the music and the footage,” says Haar. “I really wanted to try and see if the film can speak for itself.”
- Thru You Princess will screen in Toronto on September 12, 14 and 19. For more information about screenings, click here.
- Check out Kutiman’s video “Give It Up,” featuring Princess Shaw, below: