It did not manage to garner any accolades at the closing awards ceremony Sunday, September 20, 2015 but the captivating story of a powerful songstress from a tough community who stayed on course with her dream won over many hearts.
In Thru You Princess, solo a capella singer and YouTube diarist Princess Shaw unknowingly ends up launching an international singing career at a time when unpaid electricity bills and stolen tires from her only vehicle leave a woman seemingly unsuccessful at pursuing her dream. The documentary introduces audiences to her vocal talent and follows her self-guided career moves as she dresses up for a gig in her home city of New Orleans, only to find herself performing in front of an empty club. Could the story get any worse? Yes. And it is all caught on camera.
Israeli director Ido Haar (9 Star Hotel, Melting Siberia) sets up a tale of suspense through a mix of YouTube videos, HD quality recordings and a pretty cool soundtrack. The ambitious lead character Princess Shaw--who has an incredible voice reminiscent of UK recording artists Estelle and Amy Winehouse--posts every opportune moment on the Internet in hopes of connecting with a fan base to whom she confides her most intimate secrets. The number of views may hover somewhere under 100 but this never seems to dampen her enthusiasm, or her need, to write and perform original songs into her small mobile phone device. She commits to her vlogging routine even as she uploads to the uncertain abyss of cyberspace in hopes that someone--out there--will just write and send her "some beats” to accompany her vocals. Staying solo can be quite lonely.
In steps Kutiman, the Tel Aviv-based composer of "visual symphonies" whose fan base has been growing since his first attempt at a YouTube video remix in 2008. Apparently his videos appeal to millions from North America to Australia, Japan and India. Yet, a number of scenes featuring Kutiman working at his home studio (a small, compact computer desk) set in a Kibbutz far away from the spotlight and where he takes meals only accompanied by his thoughts show a loneliness on his part as well.
Director Haar does not reveal too much about Kutiman’s background. He does show Kutiman carefully examining images on his computer screen and stepping away, but within earshot of YouTube contributions in the background, as he does his daily chores. His videos of choice are turning out to be the ones featuring the songs and musings of a woman he has never met before: Princess Shaw. And, Princess Shaw can really sing. “I actually grew up really, really, really shy. I would be in choir standing behind the singers,” says Princess. “I wanted to find my voice. One day when singing while taking a shower, I did. For years I was afraid to sing up and not mimic others. It was important to find my own voice.”
Eventually the video playlist of Princess Shaw was clearly Kutiman’s next target. When asked if he could describe what connected him to Princess’ videos Kutiman quickly states: "No.” He smiles and says, “I watch so many on YouTube. It’s turning into a kind of spiritual thing. You connect and fall in love with people musically and in looking more into her channel and playing her video [the song, “Give It Up”], it fits perfectly to a musical girl with the piano. I was so happy.”
Haar took note of this and “took a dive” into her YouTube channel as well. “I wanted to figure out who is she?” he says. By coincidence, Haar was visiting the United States “for a totally different trip. I then took a flight to New Orleans and got in touch with her.” Haar recalls, “I told her in the beginning I want to do a film about YouTubers who upload their songs. I’m going all over the world. I didn't say anything about Kutiman.”
Princess Shaw who was unsure and brought a friend to the initial meeting with Haar at the hotel quickly warmed up to him. And a film about a wannabe YouTube star was born. Haar relished in New Orleans scenes of Mardi Gras, the nightclubs and a trip to Atlanta where Princess made an attempt to seek other career opportunities. While there, Princess reconnected with family members and both Haar and Princess did not expect the painful story that came next.
“We were young and never really talked about it. They didn’t know,” says Princess Shaw of her family secret. “My cousin and I are kindred spirits and this opened things up. That was the time for it.”
The Princess writes her own lyrics and through a reading of her unfinished autobiography the audience learns of repeated sexual abuse in her childhood. Haar’s camera follows her journey and the audience experiences her fight as the small necessities of life such as coping with these memories, having to pass her useless car in the mornings as she begins a long walk to work, working around keeping the light bill paid and indulging in quick boosts of confidence only to be snatched away right before stepping out on stage. Princess Shaw shares all with her audience—through tears, testimonials and song. The raw vocals that come from a past which even her cousins now admit was one of pure strength does not overpower the genuine sweetness of this woman with an easy smile adorned with corrective braces.
Still, approximately 11,000 kilometers but only a click of a mouse away, Kutiman teaches himself each musical instrument note-by-note in order to answer Princess' social media request for a willing participant who will accompany her a cappella vocals. Kutiman's chipping away at a musical score leads to his band members recording a music accompaniment. When the audio track is complete, the YouTube remix artist painstakingly reviews, curates and edits video alongside Princess' simple visuals. According to Kutiman, daily work on the song “Give It Up,” took a few months. This did not discourage him as he was inspired to start the process all over again and compose for two more.
Haar keeps the knowledge of Kutiman’s work in his back pocket. Kutiman himself has no idea what the outcome of all of this hard work will be. And, as the filmmaker shows, the Princess has no idea any of her music has gotten her any closer to fame and possibility of the YouTube fortune of a million views. Yet, by the time Kutiman feels he is ready to go live with the video post, the film audience's ears have been warmed up, hearts have been tugged and expectations are primed for finally some good fortune bestowed upon the unsuspecting singer. Haar’s camera is ready for the moment of connection he has masterfully been planning and skillfully editing. And viewers are at the edge of their seats ready for the Princess to finally—hopefully—receive some good news.
The film’s soundtrack includes Princess Shaw’s “Give it Up,” “Backwards,” and “Stay Here” as originally sung by Princess Shaw and subsequently remixed by Kutiman, his online band of YouTubers and his tiny in-studio orchestra.
Thru You Princess received a standing ovation at the TIFF 2015 premiere, which may have overwhelmed many of those who are not royalty. But, the Princess takes it all in—with childlike wonder. “I’ll try to put it into words: Surreal. Somebody took something I did and made it to what this now is. Every time I kept getting bink, bink [the click meter indicating new views] it’s like your heart beats out of your chest!”
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