Fifteen years into the new millennium, the personal impact of digital technology is fertile ground for non-fiction. In 2010, Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost’s “Catfish” touched on the potential dangers of social media and ambiguous identities they allow; now comes Ido Haar’s touching “Thru You Princess,” which offers a more upbeat possibility.
The movie chronicles the efforts of Israeli artist Ophir Kutiel, who goes by the pseudonym Kutiman, as he assembles the “visual symphonies” that have brought him acclaim worldwide. Like the dense overlays of fellow digital media artist Girl Talk, Kutiman strings together existing material into thick, orchestral compositions, exclusively using music he discovers on YouTube. Putting a finer point on the disconnect between source material and its application, Kutiman doesn’t let the musicians in on his projects until he publishes the results.
“Thru You Princess” tracks the impact of one such involuntary collaboration: “Give It Up,” a four-and-a-half minute mix built around the vocal stylings of one “Princess Shaw,” who’s actually a dejected aspiring singer named Samantha Montgomery from a lower class neighborhood in New Orleans. Published in late 2014, the track was part of an online album entitled “Thru You Too,” which received international acclaim. But Montgomery had no idea about her role in it until the rest of the world started to notice.
As she sings melancholic songs about her life to a handful of viewers, sometimes sharing tragic details of her history with sexual abuse, Haar regularly cuts away to a spellbound Kutiman: Thousands of miles away on a kibbutz, the bearded musician gazes into her personal admissions and threads her talents into a larger tapestry of symphonic beats.
Mirroring Kutiman’s own sneaky process, Haar doesn’t let Montgomery know about Kutiman’s project, nor does he tell us how her story ends from the start. Instead, “Thru You Princess” unfolds as a linear narrative tracking the moments leading up to Montgomery’s unexpected fame on the web. As the filmmaker follows her to an audition for “The Voice” and captures her singing at a club before an empty room, “Thru You Princess” develops a fairy tale quality that calls into question the nature of its production.
However, the air of manipulation throughout the story only helps to pronounce its themes. Cross-cutting from Israel to New Orleans — and eventually Atlanta, where Montgomery flees in the midst impoverished desperation — the movie unfolds with an enthralling narrative approach that leaves much to implication. While Kutiman watches his subject from afar, he never sits down for the camera to explain his work, which speaks for itself. As he threads together live recordings of instruments with layers of guitarists, percussionists and many others, Kutiman’s creativity becomes a fluid process. Clocking in at 80 minutes, “Thru You Princess” elucidates Kutiman’s powers rather than attempting any grander analysis, but viewers should be able to fill in the blanks.
With its emphasis on the unifying power of the internet, “Thru You Princess” forms a distinctive twenty-first century narrative entirely mandated by the tools of new media. It would not have been possible a decade ago. Both Kutiman and Montgomery wield smartphones at every turn, and while the ubiquity of such devices often carries ominous implications, Haar’s project adopts a sunnier approach. Like “Catfish,” it hints at a rapidly evolving new stage in global communication; while Haar doesn’t match the earlier movie’s sophisticated production values, he brings more soul.
Marking the only incident in which the filmmaker comments on the themes in play, “Thru You Princess” opens with a quote attributed to the Free Culture Movement announcing that “the many don’t bow to the few.” By liberating Montgomery from class boundaries and other social barriers holding her backs, Kutiman serves as a beacon of that sensibility. “It’s not easy to be alone by myself,” Montgomery tells the meager subscribers to her YouTube channel at one point — not realizing that, from the position of the technocratic ideals embodied by Kutiman’s work, loneliness is a dated concept.
“Thru You Princess” premiered last week at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.