Whether by chance or not, the documentary films “Amy” and “Thru You Princess” were screened at the same time at the recent Jerusalem International Film Festival. The audience thus had to choose between a much-hyped film about one of the most famous singers in the world, and a documentary starring an anonymous, then-35-year-old singer, who posts her songs on YouTube in the hope of getting her 15 minutes of fame.
Surprisingly, “Thru You Princess” – directed by Israeli filmmaker Ido Haar – is a more interesting and sophisticated film than Asaf Kapadia’s perfunctory retelling of Amy Winehouse’s life and death.
“Thru You Princess,” which received an honorary mention at Jerusalem, will be screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this month, alongside new documentaries on Janis Joplin and Canadian indie rockers Arcade Fire. Under Haar’s brilliant direction, the audience gradually becomes acquainted with the hardscrabble life of protagonist Samantha (or, as she styles herself on YouTube, Princess), who is trying to cope in a New Orleans slum.
The film shifts between two stories: the efforts of Samantha – who works as a caregiver in an old-age home – to advance her musical career, and the decision by Israeli viral-video artist Kutiman (Ophir Kutiel) to arrange and mix her songs into a musical montage, using amateur YouTube postings from around the world, as part of his ongoing “Thru You” project.
Haar’s film offers an intelligent, original and enthralling answer to a question many directors have already pondered: What’s the best way to document music, and how does one strike the right balance between music and “life itself”?
A number of films have actually presented groundbreaking answers to this question in recent years – from the Oscar-winning documentary “Searching for Sugar Man,” to a new documentary on Kurt Cobain, “Montage of Heck,” which makes use of animation, home videos and narration to document the rise and fall of the Nirvana front man. As “Amy” demonstrated, the docu-musical is a worn, formulaic genre. But these other three films deliberately set out to undermine the formula.
In “Thru You Princess,” Haar and his crew resorted to a narrative subterfuge. They told Samantha they wanted to film her as part of a documentary project about artists whose activity is centered around YouTube. For most of the film, then, Samantha has no idea she is starring in Kutiman’s project, as she tries to strike a path between gigs in dubious, empty nightclubs and street improvisations.
As the film develops, we learn more about the demons haunting Samantha. Simultaneously, Haar filmed Kutiman working on the project at his home on Kibbutz Tze’elim (in the Negev), conjuring up comic relief along the way (such as when it transpires that one of the most successful Israeli musicians in the world is eating in the kibbutz dining hall).
Samantha talks with captivating openness about her dreams, life and music, whereas Kutiman barely utters a word. He lets his music speak instead, and this helps Haar navigate and find a balance between scenes rife with verbiage and breaks that let the viewer digest the troubling story the film reveals.
“Thru You Princess” succeeds in exploiting Samantha’s anonymity to maintain tension throughout. Like “Searching for Sugar Man,” which traced the unexpected success of U.S. folk musician Sixto Rodriguez in South Africa, Haar’s film is about a protagonist who’s unaware of the way her music attracts a global audience. The encounter with Kutiman transforms the film from yet another musical biography into a documentary reexamination of the wonders of the digital age.
In an era marked by growing fears about the absence of privacy, the power of corporations like Google (which owns YouTube) and Silicon Valley’s uncanny knack of converting free content into a money machine – “Thru You Princess” succeeds in mapping the optimistic side of the Internet. The impossible tale it tells, in which an Israeli musician becomes the white knight for a princess from New Orleans whom he’s never met, is truly contemporary. In this sense, Haar’s film is an encouraging mirror image of the nightmarish world of “Amy,” in which paparazzi chase celebs relentlessly, robbing them of their quiet and privacy.
In the final analysis, the connection between Samantha and Kutiman is made possible by a world in which the geographical space is narrowed down to the living room. The film asks whether a musical work belongs to the performer or the composer; to the individual who wrote the words and sang them, or the person who arranged the song and made it go viral. The answer is more complex than it might seem.
A song, like a documentary, is a collective work that is greater than the sum of its parts. The human bond between the pain of an American woman and the musical ear of a producer-musician who lives on the other side of the ocean makes “Thru You Princess” a docu-musical that will go viral in your memory.