Thru You Princess inspirational story of viral YouTube fame or parasitic mashup?

Premiering at the Toronto film festival, Ido Haars documentary about the strange meeting of Israeli mashup video artist Kutiman and aspiring American internet star Princess Shaw takes on the ethical challenges of remix culture

In 2014, an Israeli musician, mashup artist and video plunderer named Kutiman released a song called Give It Up. It included an original a cappella performance by a New Orleans woman who posted under the YouTube handle Princess Shaw, along with snippets of work by others musicians none of whom were aware that Kutiman was manipulating their work to create his final piece. But Israeli documentarian Ido Haar, whose film-making ethics may lead to healthy post-screening discussions in the lobby, was playing the long game. He had been shooting footage of Princess Shaw for months knowing that, somewhere on a kibbutz in the Negev desert, Kutiman was to Shaws surprise preparing to make her a viral sensation.


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figcaption class=”caption” caption–img”> Watch Kutimans Thru You Too Give It Up

Haars footage of Princess Shaw is remarkable. She is a good singer, but a great, natural songwriter. In a perfect world, shed have long ago hooked up with a producer who would help sculpt her songs into anthems. But life got in the way. A victim of sexual abuse as a child, Shaw has come out the other side with an enormous heart and a natural gift as a performer. But she still faces hurdles. She is a capable nurse at what appears to be an elder-care facility, yet in a stinging rebuke of American values this job does not pay all of her bills. A mishap with her car leaves her without transportation. And she certainly cant afford to record a demo tape or take much time off from work to go on auditions.

Luckily, new technology offers a breakthrough. Shaw obsessively uploads video confessions of her life to YouTube. Her posts dont get many views, but Kutiman, who hunts for bits of internet detritus, knew he had hit pay dirt when he discovered her solo performances. Weve all poked around an the web late at night and wondered: whats that persons life like? You hear her voice, with added reverb and a full band behind it on Kutimans remixes, and sense that this woman must have an interesting life.

Haars film focuses on Shaws day-to-day struggles. She deals with the pain of past abuse, she tries to get some singing gigs on a trip to Atlanta, she makes a quixotic run at getting on the television series The Voice. Kutiman, intercut with her buoyant, never-say-die attitude, is an absurd figure, and the movie plays up his mad-scientist side: hes bearded and living among animals, with marijuana roach stuck to his lip, eating oatmeal on a ratty couch and watching YouTube clips of elephants. He has an almost a religious vibe: his mouse clicks are the hand of God, his keystrokes the arbiter of fate. And when Princess Shaw realises that she is now one of the chosen people, her deliverance is overwhelming.

Thru You Princess can be frustrating in what it leaves out. Kutiman is a respected artist, as the opening scene at the Guggenheim Museum shows. His work is sonically dense, musically inspired and altogether wonderful. But isnt he just a parasite, feeding off others art? And if so, does that make Haar doubly one? Princess Shaw, despite massive recognition online and an emotional victory lap through Israel, doesnt seem to financially gain from Kutimans appropriation of her work. But didnt she throw her music out into the world? And with the way remix culture works now, is she owed anything?

Most people will find Thru You Princess inspirational. A few will find it infuriating. But thats frequently the case with a good documentary. Haar deliberately manipulates time and withholds information. The scenes of Kutiman all seem like re-creations, but does that really matter especially in a story about an artist whose very essence is manipulation? The most striking thing is that neither Kutiman or Haar would be anything without genuine people like Princess Shaw to exploit. Or, depending on your view, to celebrate.

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