“Without the king,” Princess Sikhanyiso solemnly proclaims, “we have no culture.” The culture in question belongs to the tiny African country of Swaziland, the only absolute monarchy left on the planet, and, not coincidentally, the country with the highest rate of HIV/AIDS and the lowest life expectancy. In spite of the country’s problems, however, King Mswati III, resplendent in tribal garb, hops the globe on his privately-owned, publicly-financed jet. Yet, with Swaziland providing this mother lode of material, helmer Michael Skolnik extracts only the most pedestrian of films. Opening April 25 at Gotham’s Quad Cinema, “Without the King’s” astounding subject-matter will have to trump its poor execution to fill B.O. coffers.
As in his previous docu “Lockdown,” ostensibly about the draconian Rockefeller drug laws but dominated by the figure and agenda of Russell Simmons, Skolnik tends to lack focus, easily waylaid by his subjects, seduced by his very access to the rich and famous or the poor and desperate.
Thus scenes with Princess Sikhanyiso (aka Pashu) formlessly go on forever, whether she is conducting an on-camera tour of one of her father’s opulently appointed 14 palaces (one for each wife), bidding tearful adieus to her mother and brothers before taking off to a Christian college in California, or wandering around Hollywood Boulevard musing aloud that they could use some of this snazzy technology back in Swaziland.
The princess’ candid obliviousness invites a Swazilandic remake of “Clueless,” while her belated realization of social injustice possesses all the conviction of a Jane Fonda hairdo makeover being used to denote raised consciousness.
Interviews with members of banned political parties (all political parties are banned in Swaziland) seem equally shapeless, while shaky, hand-held coverage of street protests make them appear sparse and impotent rather than spontaneous. On visits to NGOs feeding the legions of children orphaned by the AIDS pandemic, docu shamelessly wallows in cheap sentimentality and mournful music.
Yet despite these limitations, “King” fascinates on many levels as it ticks off intriguing sociological facts about this impoverished nation. Life expectancy is a shocking 32 years old, while the HIV/AIDS prevalence rate is 42.6% (as opposed to America’s 0.6%).
King Mswati rationalizes his life of luxury and utter autocracy with an offhand cultured charm that is a marvel of double-speak.
Then there is the annual “Reed Dance” led by the Princess, wherein more than 75,000 bare-breasted girls celebrate their virginity, usually culminating with the king’s choice of another wife. Not that helmer Skolnik really allows himself to “exploit” the spectacle visually.
Tech credits are unremarkable.