December 16, 2018

A pair of princesses arrive in Los Angeles

Two very different Israeli films about their titular princesses open in Los Angeles on May 27. The first of these, a movie called simply “Princess,” is a dark, somewhat surreal coming-of-age story about child molestation. The other, “Presenting Princess Shaw,” is a documentary that tells a tale of courage, creativity and serendipity surrounding a would-be singer.

As the action begins in “Princess,” it is clear that 12-year-old Adar (Shira Haas) is troubled. She spends most of the day sleeping and rarely attends the school for the gifted in which she is enrolled. Adar lives with her mother, Alma (Keren Mor), and Alma’s boyfriend, Michael (Ori Pfeffer), who are openly physical in front of the young girl. She, in turn, frequently plays games with Michael that become increasingly intimate.  

In a recent interview, writer-director Tali Shalom Ezer described the interaction between the pre-teen and Michael.

“From the beginning, we see that the relationship between Adar and Michael is somewhat undefined. In the doctor-patient game, we see there is something erotic in the way the two relate. Adar has the feeling that their relationship is moving into dangerous territory, but she is ambivalent about it. She is both attracted to this game and her relationship with Michael, but also feels uncomfortable and uncertain about it — she feels that she is betraying her mother, she feels to blame in some way. These contrasting feelings are overwhelming and too much for a 12-year-old girl to carry, and so they distress her.”

Into the mix comes Alan (Adar Zohar-Hanetz), who is almost a mirror image of Adar.  He apparently is homeless, so the family takes him into their apartment. But does he really exist, or does he symbolize another aspect of Adar? “After reading the script, people asked me, ‘Is this boy real or is he fantasy? You need to clarify this.’ But for me it was important to keep Alan as a riddle, as magic, as something that I don’t completely understand. I intentionally left this unclear,” Ezer said. “What I did know, however, was that Alan was essential for my main character, Adar, and to the consolidation of her identity.” 

Ezer added, “As I see it, Alan is the expression of Adar’s inner world — a world that sits somewhere between reality and imagination. Presenting Alan like this was my way of representing the experience of disassociation that Adar is going through. However, I invite audiences to understand this in their own ways.”

The documentary “Presenting Princess Shaw” has a different tone and focuses on Samantha Montgomery, who works as an aide at a senior facility in New Orleans. Her goal is to be a singer, and she uploads video of herself performing her original tunes on YouTube, while also baring her soul and revealing the sexual and physical abuse she endured in her youth.  

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the musician and composer Ophir Kutiel, known as Kutiman, who has a large following, sees her uploads and is taken with the African-American singer, finding in her an undiscovered talent. He has his own artistic project that he shares on YouTube from his home on an Israeli kibbutz. 

“Kutiman takes segments of musical clips performed by anonymous YouTubers and weaves them into a single, cohesive audiovisual experience,” Israeli director Ido Haar explained in a recent interview.

He continued, “When Kutiman introduced me to the project, I immediately loved the songs and attempted to learn more about the musicians through their YouTube channels, trying to find out who they were. At first, the idea was to do a documentary about several singers and musicians. [But] from the very beginning, Samantha caught my attention. There was something about her. 

“Her unique and touching voice, which exposed a deep, rich, complex and charged inner world, [along with] her honesty, courage and incredible talent stunned me.”

Without her knowledge, Kutiman decides to create a video collage for YouTube featuring Samantha, who calls herself “Princess Shaw,” and Haar asks to film her for a documentary. When she agrees, he starts following her around New Orleans and on her travels to other cities. 

Haar also goes back to Israel to film Kutiman in the process of making the collage. He is able to be on the scene and film her reaction when she first sees herself in Kutiman’s video, which garners a million hits. As a result of Kutiman’s work, Princess Shaw, who had up to then attracted only modest attention, starts to become known around the world. 

Ultimately, Kutiman arranges for her to sing in Tel Aviv at the Habima Theatre, the national theater of Israel. Encouraged by this unexpected turn of events, Samantha continues to fight for her dream.

Haar feels that his documentary examines universal issues. “The main issues I’m exploring are feelings of loneliness, the desire to be heard and recognized, and loved,” he said. “It is a film about long-lasting anonymity in a world that is constantly creating new stars. It is about talent, persistence and the arbitrary connection they have to success, at least as we define it.”