Presenting Princess Shaw

| June 1, 2016

For some time now, the internet has been challenging our perceptions of what art can be, and in Ido Haar’s documentary Presenting Princess Shaw, the idea of online applications as the next evolution in artistic instrumentation is explored quite thoughtfully. The story follows Samantha Montgomery, a care-giver working and living in one of the toughest neighborhoods in New Orleans.

By day she cares for her elderly clients, but at night she becomes Princess Shaw, an aspiring singer who uses her YouTube channel as a confessional and means of showcasing her original material. At the same time, Ophir Kutiel, an Israeli composer and multimedia artist known at Kutiman, creates video mashups of amateur YouTube performers in the hope of bringing together talent that would otherwise not have the means of getting their work noticed.

When Kutiman comes across one of Samantha’s videos he is immediately taken with her honesty and raw talent, and creates a new composition around her vocals. The piece that comes out of this session will explore the exciting possibilities of online collaboration and change both of their lives forever.

Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with director Ido Haar and subjects Samantha Montgomery and Kutiman to ask them about their experiences during the production, and where they see the future of online collaboration heading.

MV: Ido, when you’re getting ready for a film project, is there something a story needs to possess for you to want to pursue it, and why did this particular story excite you?

Ido: This project was very different than anything I had worked on previously. Going in, there weren’t really any rules I was abiding by, and the whole thing unfolded in a very intuitive way. When Kutiman did his previous piece about six years ago, I was totally blown away by him and wanted to do a project inspired by his work. But at that time it was just too late for me to get involved. Then he showed me the current piece he was working on with Samantha, and I felt it was the right time to participate and talked with him about the project and the idea of documenting a few of the musicians who would appear in the work. As we started discussing things more I asked him to show me additional footage from Samantha’s YouTube channel, and I totally fell in love with her songs. The honesty and courage they possessed was amazing, and I felt that I really wanted to meet her. So we met in New Orleans and I explained I wanted to do a movie about musicians who upload their material to YouTube. We felt very comfortable around each other from the first meeting, and I knew that she would be one of the characters in the film. So I continued with the research and met amazing musicians in Europe and the US, but I felt following Samantha was what I really wanted to do.

MV: When you began shooting, did you have an idea of what you wanted the film to be, or did it come together as the events were unfolding?

Ido: It came together as I was following Samantha, but the way I work in all of my films is that I don’t do interviews with the subjects. I just try to be in the right place in the right time, and disappear as much as I can. I walk by myself with a small camera and no crew; no additional cameramen or sound technicians. On this project, for most of it anyways, I was there by myself, so I knew more or less that the aesthetic that was unfolding would be the language of the film. But additionally, by incorporating applications of social media such as YouTube and Instagram, I wanted to explore these elements to add complexity and deeper layers to the project. It was a challenge, but I enjoyed it very much.

MV: Samantha, this is a very intimate look at your life and creative process, and often times you are revealing some heart wrenching episodes and emotions. Was it a challenge for you to be up front about your feelings with a camera around you all the time?

Samantha: No, surprisingly I was really cool with the whole thing. Ido and Kutiman are so genuine and generous that I felt incredibly comfortable around them. During the filming, it was just Ido and a small camera, and wherever we went it was like a fun walk, and in fact, after a while I would just forget he was even there. Sometimes I would turn around and it would almost scare me. I would be like, oh right, there you are. But, it didn’t feel like an invasion at all. It was a wonderful time.

MV: And what was the reason you started uploading videos to YouTube in the first place?

Samantha: Well, I’ve always been a singer, but I don’t play an instrument. I don’t know anything about notes or composition. But I remember seeing a producer online who was putting his music out there hoping to attract singers. And I thought, maybe I could do the same approach. If I put my acapella singing out there I could find someone to put music behind it. So that’s how it started.

MV: By using the internet and applications like YouTube, did you find you could express feelings better through that medium than potentially having to reveal it face-to-face with someone?

Samantha: I didn’t really think too much about it when I started uploading videos. It was just me and my phone; the world and its problems didn’t exist in those moments. It eventually became a confessional, but it wasn’t intentional at all. The whole process was very intuitive, and when I was moving forward with it I felt like I was just on autopilot. I wouldn’t question it, and just felt this was the thing and process I was supposed to be using.

MV: Ido has said that this is a film about loneliness and its complexities. Do you think that’s one of the benefits of the internet and YouTube is that you’re able to connect more easily with people and potentially conquer types of loneliness that were more difficult to approach prior to the existence of these applications?

Samantha: For me, I would watch videos on random things, you know like how to change a lightbulb and stuff like that. But I never really thought too much about it as a tool to connect with people, because when I was expressing my emotions, I was using that as an outlet just for myself without any expectation that people would become invested or interested in them. I did it as a process for myself. I just pressed play and boom there it was. It released the demons out of my soul. Ultimately it was still my struggle and my journey no matter who viewed or decided to edit the video.

MV: Was it a surprise that these people from the other side of the world were interested in your music?

Samantha: Yeah, because I was at a point in my life where I was completely down and out of it. People think that just because a camera is following you that you turn into a beautiful person and put on a show, but it’s not like that at all. It’s a real struggle. And with Ido, although he’s by my side and following me, he can’t help. Because of his role, he can’t intervene on my behalf, no matter how difficult it gets. I have to overcome these problems myself, but I was glad to have someone documenting the hardships. He probably wanted to help me, but nobody can help me. I have to help myself. His presence though was a great comfort, and it was nice to know someone was there to listen to my worries and concerns. He was instrumental in helping me through this process.

MV: And Ido, do you feel you were able to gain something from being on this journey with Samantha?

Ido: Oh yes, definitely. There is something that Samantha says in the film that I try to remind myself all the time. When she’s standing on the balcony of her hotel in Tel Aviv in the middle of the night she says she just wants to feel that sense of accomplishment once, and then she’ll know that all the struggles will have been worth it. I’m always trying to live and appreciate moments like that.

MV: And Kutiman, how did these YouTube mashups first begin? How did you become interested in them?

Kutiman: I actually fell in love with YouTube the minute I was introduced to it. I’ve used YouTube to learn a lot of things, including tutorials to help improve my own playing. And at a certain point I had several of these videos open in different tabs on my computer, and as I experimented I thought you know, it sounds like they’re all playing together. I loved the idea, and tried to tweak them a bit and mesh them together, and from that point on I hardly left the computer until the project was done.

MV: And how did you come across Samantha’s videos? Were you just exploring and you happened to stumble upon them?

Kutiman: Yeah, I was just browsing around. With her song I had the music first and at a certain point I decided I wanted vocals for the track and did a search. It was a hard one to find. I searched for a couple days and nights for acapella singers and finally came across Samantha, but she was way down on the list, like page 27 of these singers. But I was so happy when I found her because it was perfect. She had this line that went with the bass of the song and I thought this is unbelievable. I really fell in love with her voice and the song immediately, and it inspired me to do a whole album.

MV: Is there something specific that you look for in these videos, or that you’re drawn to with music in general?

Kutiman: Definitely. I mean, a lot of people do their sampling off albums, but I prefer to do sampling off YouTube. When you sample off YouTube, unlike with an album where you just have sound, you’re suddenly confronting a person who is playing for you and it brings another dimension to the sampling. You have to take into consideration the musical aspect of the piece but also the personal aspect of the piece. Sometimes when I would search for something, I would come across an individual who was perfect musically, but they would say something nasty or arrogant and I just couldn’t use them. I can’t use the piece if I don’t like the person. And sometimes it would work the other way around. In the first project there’s this kid that plays drums, and he’s not the best drummer, but he’s so kind. He uploaded this video on how to play drums and he has this trick he wants to show everyone, and I said okay, I’m going to cut and paste this kid and make him the best drummer in the world.

MV: Do you think this sort of collaboration with people through the internet is the future of how art will be produced?

Ido: I want it to be, but I’m not sure if it will. I think this story couldn’t have happened 15 or 20 years ago, and the idea of two people from opposite sides of the globe coming together to collaborate in such a way that previously would have been impossible gives me hope. What I think Kutiman does is very revolutionary in a way, and it’s a means of fighting against the system and those commercial rules that prevent a lot of people from participating. It brings together people who don’t necessarily have the power or luck to get into the often exclusive world of music and art. So I’m hoping that projects such as this will help in opening paths and presenting new ways of getting your art out there for people to experience.

Kutiman: I also hope there will be more opportunities for people to succeed because while working on these projects I run into a lot of amazing musicians and it makes you think about the ideas of opportunity and success. You have these amazing musicians, and then you look at their online pages and they only have 40 views and will probably never get noticed. So I hope the tool of the internet will open up more opportunities for these undiscovered talents to reach a larger audience, and that the fact of how much money you have or where you were born won’t play as vital of a role as it has in the past.

Samantha: Everything today is so gimmicky, and I think people are looking for that raw talent that is going to inspire them. The problem is, a lot of people don’t know what real, authentic talent is because they’ve been bombarded by all these gimmicky tactics and people wanting to be the next internet sensation. As long as you have something for people to be passionate about, then that’s all you need. People need to be exposed to the raw beauty of music once again.

MV: You all certainly have that passion and raw beauty in your work, and I’m curious how you first became interested in art, and what about it has made you want to continue to produce it?

Kutiman: When I was six years old I heard a neighbor playing piano, and I remember hearing that and falling in love with music instantly. I haven’t been able to stop ever since.

Samantha: I always had music in my life. Music has the ability to transport you out of your current situation and inspire you. I remember listening to songs and wondering what was going on with the people who were singing them. What was happening in their own lives? It was always a safe spot for me, a way to escape the troubles that were going on around me. It was the most important thing to me.

Ido: I grew up in a village in Israel that was quite isolated. For me, films were windows to other places around the world, and I found myself really drawn to them. When I was a child and tried to imagine being a filmmaker though it seemed impossible. It was just so far away from anything I was experiencing. I didn’t know anyone who was even close to that industry. But it was something I felt from an early age that I really wanted to do. And after I finished serving in the Israeli military I thought I have to try. I have to follow my passions. I think we all do. Maybe it won’t work out, but I have to try.

Presenting Princess Shaw is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.

About the Author:

Matthew Vasiliauskas is a graduate of Columbia University. His work has appeared in publications such as Conjunctions, Berlin’s Sand Literary Journal, Chicago Literati and The Pennsylvania Review. Matthew currently lives and works in Los Angeles.

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