Sometimes a documentary is both so fascinating and confounding that it almost demands a second documentary to explain it. Ido Haar’s Presenting Princess Shaw tells a remarkable story and captures it as it unfolds in two different countries. In New Orleans, Haar films the daily grind of 38-year-old Samantha Montgomery, a nursing-home caregiver who spends her free time uploading deeply personal video diaries and original songs to YouTube, while making faltering attempts to launch a singing career as “Princess Shaw.” Meanwhile, on a kibbutz in Israel, the conceptual artist and musician known as Kutiman has secretly chosen to make Montgomery’s clips the center of his latest video project and to get followers around the world to contribute instrumental parts to realize his own arrangement of Princess’ tunes.
Presenting Princess Shaw is a narrative documentary in the vérité/direct cinema traditions, in that there are no confessional interviews per se (aside from the ones that Montgomery puts up on YouTube) and no experts to place Kutiman or his “free culture movement” into a larger context. Instead, the doc unfolds like a fiction film, following the heroine’s joys and woes while building up to the moment when her song briefly becomes famous around the world thanks to Kutiman. The difference between Presenting Princess Shaw and other “life as it happens” movies is that Haar has stacked the deck. He knows what’s happening back in Israel, but he doesn’t tell his subject. He knows she’s in for the surprise of her life.
Does it matter that Haar ambushes Montgomery? That’s the question that casts a shadow across what’s otherwise a sweet, touching documentary. It’s not the only question, though. If the film had pulled back just a bit, it could’ve grappled with the issues of cultural appropriation and the ethics of turning people into viral sensations without their consent. If Haar had allowed himself to be an active character in his own movie, he could’ve addressed Kutiman’s motivations and Montgomery’s feelings about his little stunt. When Presenting Princess Shaw ends, it feels like its story has only been half told and that the making of this picture itself—and what happens to Montgomery next—might’ve been much richer material.
Then again, to dismiss Presenting Princess Shaw for what it isn’t would undervalue what it is. Haar appears to have approached this project with a bias toward uncritical positivity, accepting Kutiman as a benevolent genius and Montgomery as the lucky recipient of his attention. But he certainly doesn’t sugarcoat what life is like for this working-class black woman. The film shows how Montgomery overcame being sexually abused as a child and how she pursues her dreams even as she struggles to pay her utility bills. She’s a complex and appealingly upbeat person to spend time with, and after watching her fail so often—from performing in clubs to audiences in the single digits to saying goodbye to her on-again/off-again girlfriend—her moment in the sun is a welcome relief both for her and the viewer.
The smartest choice Haar makes is to emphasize how life in the internet age can be mostly mundane and then spontaneously wondrous. Early on, Presenting Princess Shaw contrasts Kutiman’s relatively comfortable existence as an artist with Montgomery’s world of car trouble and rejection. Then he clicks the button to post his video, and while he continues his ordinary routine, suddenly she’s spending the day getting congratulations and raves from around the world. This film barely brushes up against the many, many issues it raises, but those conversations can be had in the lobby, after the pleasure of watching an underappreciated artist finally get her due.