Samantha Montgomery, a.k.a. Princess Shaw, and Ophir Kutiel, who gos by the name Kutiman in Presenting Princess Shaw (Magnolia Pictures)

Samantha Montgomery, a.k.a. Princess Shaw, and Ophir Kutiel, who gos by the name Kutiman in Presenting Princess Shaw (Magnolia Pictures)

yellowstar This engaging documentary begins by introducing us to the Israeli musician and multimedia artist known as Kutiman (real name, Ophir Kutiel). His craft is taking random YouTube footage of people practicing their musical instruments and editing them together to make full compositions in video form. Immediately one has to admire the painstaking amount of hours he must spend mining YouTube to find the instruments for his symphonies. The catch is, none of his subjects are aware that he is using their homemade videos in his musical collages until the day he uploads the videos to YouTube, when he tags them in the post. Each member of his new media symphony then enjoys the surprise of becoming part of an overnight viral sensation.

Enter Samantha Montgomery, who goes by the stage name and online persona Princess Shaw, one such YouTuber who is about to be plucked up out of obscurity by Kutiman’s next creation. When we meet up with Shaw, the 39-year-old is living in New Orleans working at a nursing home and pursuing a seemingly futile quest to become a professional singer. She has already logged many hours as a YouTuber, making videos with her iPhone of herself singing her compositions or giving herself motivational speeches. In fact, some of the most heartrending moments are videos of Montgomery speaking directly to the camera about whether it is time to give up on her dream. Director Ido Haar makes sure to zoom in on her “Views” list, always a depressingly low number. Surely no one in the world aside from friends and family, and perhaps Internet stalkers, are paying attention to Montgomery’s prayers. But then, nearly 7,000 miles away, sitting in his humble home in a kibbutz outside of Tel Aviv, Kutiman runs his fingers through his unkempt beard, puffs on a hand-rolled cigarette, and watches mesmerized as if he has just found a long-lost sibling.

The story that follows is something that couldn’t have happened without the unprecedented phenomenon of YouTube and the do-it-yourself culture. In this case, one artist from across the world finds a connection with someone he’s never met and uses his genius and the tools at his disposal to give her what she could not have done on her own. (You can watch the product of their collaboration here.) What keeps the film engaging is that Montgomery is truly inspiring. Her determination seems to underlie every decision she makes in her daily life, and viewers with similar artistic goals will no doubt find similitude with her. Because of her perseverance and openness, she’s so damn relatable that halfway through the movie you’ll want to sit down with her and share a milkshake.

That being said, Presenting Princess Shaw needs to be looked at with some scrutiny. Director Haar and Kutiman knew each other for years before the project begun. On a trip to the United States, Haar made a detour to New Orleans to meet Princess Shaw. Upon meeting her, he gave her a vague description of the project, claiming he was making a documentary about YouTubers. Because he knew throughout his entire journey with Montgomery that Kutiman was creating something out of her YouTube vocal performances, that calls into question the veracity of the entire film. The filmmakers knew what awaited her at the end, and Haar and Kutiman constructed Princess Shaw’s narrative before the director even set foot on U.S. soil. How this differs from a contested documentary such as Catfish is that Haar continually cuts to Kutiman in Israel working on his Princess Shaw video; we know something is coming. The film is a countdown to the moment Kutiman finishes his editing and posts the video and the moment Montgomery becomes an Internet sensation.

What Presenting Princess Shaw essentially asks is: With new media, where is art going? Have we stepped into a post-commercial art world? Is “art for art’s sake” coming back into the zeitgeist? Or, considering the abundance of clips Kutiman has to choose from, maybe the Internet is showing us that the spirit of “art for art’s sake” never left us.

Edited and Directed by Ido Haar
Produced by Liran Atzmor
Released by Magnolia Pictures
Israel/France/Canada/Sweden/the Netherlands. 80 min. Not rated