Amidst the gloom about social media, one documentary reminds us just how suddenly lives can change and unlikely friendships blossom – all thanks to online connections.
There can be few things which evoke more cynicism than social media. The mere mention of Facebook or tweeting is enough to prompt a storm of muttering and shaking of heads among some. More often than not, it is not the dodgy commercial practices of these companies that seems to annoy people the most, but the supposed narcissism and short-term thinking of those who partake in this online life.
Indeed, ‘selfie culture’ is increasingly portrayed as not just vapid and pitiable, but darkly sinister and even dystopian. The need for validation online feeds a spiral of posting, seeking that next fix of ‘likes’ and comments, and the logical conclusion is – apparently – a society entirely obsessed with appearance, fakery and competition. Look no further than the latest Black Mirror series on Netflix; the episode Nosedive has pastel-clad pearly-toothed wannabes allowing instant online ratings to dictate their life chances, and enthusiastically joining in the game – until, for one woman, the viciousness of it all drives her over the edge.
What the critiques of internet culture often fail to consider is just how unreasonable it is to condemn humans, endlessly curious and social, for getting hooked on the web – or for staring at this pocket device which can do, and show you, so many extraordinary things. The ability to communicate with the whole world, so easily and directly, is so powerful. especially for those who have something to say. Especially for those who can’t otherwise get their voice heard.
Samantha Montgomery, aka Princess Shaw on YouTube, could not make her voice heard. Struggling to get by in New Orleans, finding no audience for her (considerable) singing talent at open mic events, and wondering if she’d ever ‘make it’, Montgomery blogged about her life. Or rather, vlogged – uploading short clips of whatever was on her mind, alongside the songs she wrote herself, performed a cappella and on the spur of the moment. If you venture further into the vast world of YouTube, you realise just how many people do this – some nervously, and some with the total candour and honesty that Montgomery has. Putting out their most personal thoughts, feelings, and musical endeavours, hoping to get a response.
All these people uploading into the ether, not knowing who will watch or what reaction they might get – it’s a strange and quite poignant thought. But this phenomenon sometimes has quite startling, and moving, results. For Montgomery, this came when she found that a well-known Israeli electronic musician, Ophir Kutiel, had remixed one of her songs into a catchy, layered, professional-sounding track. He’s on the other side of the world, but what does that matter – watching her clips, sampling her tracks, Kutiel forms a connection with her. Just months later, that connection is suddenly ‘real’: she’s flown to Tel Aviv to record, and perform on stage, with Kutiel. His mix of her song, released under his pseudonym Kutiman, went viral. Give It Up soon had over a million hits, and people were suddenly flocking to Montgomery’s own page too.
For Montgomery, her dreams have all come true at once, and this sudden – if brief – rise to fame is the subject of Ido Haar’s documentary, Presenting Princess Shaw. It has been widely praised as an uplifting and moving film, and it’s Montgomery herself who makes it so. The scenes in which she discovers Kutiel’s mix stand out – when she’s sitting on a bench in the city, phone pressed to her ear, totally overwhelmed hearing it for the first time. Or later, sitting her family down to watch the video, reading messages from fans through her tears – these are the scenes that make the film. If we didn’t already feel a strong connection with Montgomery, it wouldn’t be nearly so powerful, but the sheer openness and optimism she brings to her YouTube clips means we’re rooting for her already.
It remains to be seen if the popular song, documentary, and forthcoming collaboration with Kutiman really will change Montgomery’s life. She still works as a nursing assistant in a care home – not that this is somehow a bad thing, but in the US it’s very poorly paid. For someone who has been through so much, and still has no idea what the future will bring, she has an incredibly philosophical attitude to life’s ups and downs. In a recent interview for Salon she concludes, “Life is great. Even if I lose everything, I have a lot of things I'm thankful for.”
What happened to Montgomery, thanks to Kutiel clicking on a YouTube video one day, is still an extraordinary story, and you can’t imagine a better protagonist to be at the centre of it all. When we’re saturated with cynicism about online life and the supposed narcissism and foolishness, it’s worth being reminded that never before has it been so easy for two seemingly random people to meet and collaborate, against all the odds.
This week: Presenting Princess Shaw in Athens, Berlin, Warsaw
Moving Docs is showing this film in Athens on Sunday 11th, Berlin on Tuesday 13th, and Warsaw on Tuesday 13th and Thursday 15th. See here for details.