Without the King (2007)
Directed by: Michael Skolnik
MPAA rating: Not Rated (but no profanity, sex, or violence)
Run time: 84 minutes
Michael Skolnik’s documentary about the royal family of Swaziland is like that old saw about Chinese food. It’s delicious, but it leaves you wishing there was more to the meal. But Skolnik does take adavantage of a unique situation. His UCLA professor of Zulu was an advisor to the king of Swaziland, the only absolute monarch on the African continent. Invited to travel there, Skolnik not only met and interviewed King Mswati III, but also befriended him and his oldest child, the seventeen year old princess nicknamed Pashu. And she turns out to be the most interesting angle on an interesting story.
Located on the southeast coast of Africa, Swaziland is a disaster. The poverty is so extreme that since 2002 only emergency UN food relief has forestalled a human catastrophe. The HIV/AIDS prevalence rate is the highest in the world (over 42 percent!) and the life expectancy of thirty-one years is the world’s lowest. None of which stops the king from providing each of his fourteen wives with their own designer clothes and their own palace to raise his twenty-two children. He has a fleet of luxury cars and a private jet, financed by drought relief money raised by superstars like Bono and others.
While human misery more often generates despair and passivity than resistance, Swazliland does have a well-organized left wing movement demanding and demonstrating for a fully democratic constitution, free elections, a bill of rights, and economic reforms to help the impoverished majority. Skolnik conducts wonderful interviews with them. Though uneducated and seemingly self-taught about politics, they are thoughtful and sophisticated about strategy, tactics, and their overall goals.
While this royal dictator does what dictators do best- try to be charming while behaving wretchedly; and while these good revolutionaries do what good revolutionaries do best- work hard and risk their lives- the secret surprise of the film is Pashu. When we first meet her, she sounds like the African version of a Valley girl. Pathetically shallow and oblivious to the world beyond her opulence, she seems to care only about cool clothes and hip music.
The first inkling that there could be more to this young woman comes from the interviews with her mother. We can tell immediately that there is substance and self-respect in this woman. She has ambitions for her children and wants to resist the most restrictive interpretations of what a royal wife should be and do. And then we begin to see traces of the mother in the daughter. When she goes to America to attend college, she transitions easily to a life without excessive wealth and privilege. She’s curious. Her mind and emotions seem to mature. And Skolnik uses his interviews with her to give us insights into her evolving thinking. Most interestingly, her interest in things American will gradually translate into an interest in her own country beyond the bounds of the royal purview.
Skolnik the filmmaker is at his best when showing us Pashu’s return home to lead the dance of the 75,000 virgins- I’m not making this up, we see them dancing, bare breasted, before the king and other men. And Skolnik shows us the ritual in all its complexity. On the one hand, it’s fascinating and astonishing. In the twenty first century, these African girls are performing a rite that goes back to time immemorial. Its music and choreography are stunning, and it reminds us of the complexity of the human family. On the other hand, it’s disgusting. This dance is an audition to arouse the king’s interest so he can find yet another new wife, for whom he can build yet another new palace. And Pashu’s response is as complicated as ours. She loves being part of this essential ritual for adolescent girls, but her smile is markedly uncomfortable when she realizes that her latest step-mother will be younger than she.
Without the King is the work of a young filmmaker, with mistakes that he will surely correct over time. He doesn’t follow through on important strands of the narrative, such as Pashu’s experience in college and the radicals’ plans to resist the phony constitution. These stories are not constructed so that they have an engaging narrative; they are simply a series of revealing moments. We also have no idea where the country’s wealth comes from; based on what we see it’s unfathomable where the king gets the money for his obscenely lavish lifestyle. We get tantalizing glimpses of the king, but are never sure whether his insensitivity to the plight of his people reflects that he’s a kind of happy idiot or that he possesses a more manipulative and callous intelligence. And what about the other royal wives, princes and princesses? How does a royal harem-family actually function?
But the ultimate experience of Skolnik’s film is seeing a country that seems about to disappear from the face of the earth. Apparently it’s not only animal species that face extinction in Africa. When forty-two percent of the population is likely to have a protracted AIDS death, when the country’s very limited wealth is both shrinking and being used to support a decadent monarchy, when a thoughtful and well-organized opposition could understandably precipitate a civil war- it’s easy to imagine Swaziland simply ceasing to exist in a generation. But Skolnik contrasts that despair with an astonishing visual at the end of the film. Just as Princess Diana created iconic images when she held emaciated AIDS children, the equally beautiful Princess Pashu is seen caressing the herpes ravaged face of a young boy. As he and other sick and hungry children reach out to touch her, and as she, stunned and moved, reaches out for their touch, she speaks of using her power and her life to change this situation. Maybe there is hope for Swaziland. If the country ever enters our radar screen, and if it ever comes to a reckoning with its own desparate situation- Michael Skolnik and the people who made this film have earned some of the credit.