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‘Without the King’: Meet the director, Michael Skolnik

December 15, 2008

Review and interview by POCC Minister of Information JR

Princess Pashu, the rapping princess of Swaziland
Princess Pashu, the rapping princess of Swaziland
“Without the King” is by far the best documentary I’ve seen this year that looks at class contradictions in Africa and also speaks indirectly to class contradictions here in America.

I have a 4-year-old daughter who constantly talks about wanting to be a princess like little girls of all classes and races do in this country. After she watched “Without the King” with me and got over how pretty and articulate Pashu, the rapping princess of Swaziland, is, she told me that she did not think it was right for the royal family to be so rich while the regular people have to drink water out of puddles on the ground, as one scene in the documentary portrays. Her pre-school summation on class spoke to the power of this film.

“Without the King” is not an activist film per se, but it intimately discusses issues that are pertinent to Swazi society – the King, the royal family and dissidents in the country. If you look at the bonus material, you can even see a more in depth interview with one of the 13 queens of Swaziland, as well as the King’s oldest brother. You can also see footage from an orphanage where the caretaker Siphiwe Hlophe talks about her work in Swaziland and her health, and there’s a homemade video with Princess Pashu at Venice Beach near Los Angeles, where she raps one of the verses she wrote.

The film moved me to think about class within the Black community right here in the United States, as well as in the greater population, especially when 2009 will bring the first Black president. Many in the Black community are wondering how much of this “change” he says he stands for will materialize in “bailouts” for the poor and disenfranchised. Class is a topic that is seldom talked about, and “Without the King” handles the topic eloquently.

I caught up with the director of “Without the King,” Michael Skolnik, to discuss this very important film about the last governing monarchy in the world.

MOI JR: How did you come up with the idea for the documentary “Without the King”? Did you already know the royal family? If not, how did you get such access and get them to talk so openly about controversial issues in Swazi society?

Michael Skolnik: In 1997, as a college sophomore at UCLA, I decided to study Zulu – had always had an interest in visiting South Africa and figured if I was gonna go there, I should learn the language of the people. My professor turned out to be Swazi and was an advisor to King Mswati III.

Over the years, I got the chance to meet the king, and when he learned that I made movies, asked me to make a movie about his life. I happily agreed, as I thought he would make an amazing character in a film. When I got to Swaziland to film for the first time – I had been there four times previous – the access I thought I had to the king was quite different than what I was getting.

Princess Pashu, the rapping princess of Swaziland
Princess Pashu, the rapping princess of Swaziland
On Day 4, after waiting every night for hours to see the king at one of his many palaces, I ran into his daughter, the princess, in the parking lot. I had met her in LA when she was visiting with her father years ago, but now she was a woman. I asked her if we could film her and she agreed. From there, the film began.

As I have known the king and his family for many years, the king agreed to give me unprecedented access to their lives. However, when I got to Swaziland for the first time to film, the access was quite different than what had been promised to me. So, I had to make a number of adjustments the first trip, the biggest being focusing on the princess’ life more, as I had much more access to her daily activities.

MOI JR: How long did the shooting take? And what kind of equipment and crew did you have with you?

Michael Skolnik: I filmed over the course of a year, and we shot on high definition.

MOI JR: When you interviewed people from the neighborhood about their opinions of the royal family, did you get the feeling that a revolution was brewing and that political dissent is growing?

Michael Skolnik: When I was given the opportunity to talk to people from all over Swaziland about their daily struggles, I realized that this film is much deeper than just a portrayal of the king and his family. This is a country that has the highest HIV rate in the world – 42.6 percent – and the lowest life expectancy rate in the world – 31 years.

In my humble opinion, this is a country on the verge of extinction. We are not talking about a rare bird or an unknown insect in the Amazon; we are talking about a group of people that have been around for thousands of years. So, when speaking to people, of course I recognized that they were upset and scared at the same time. They want change and they want it now, so their country can survive. What kind of change they want is definitely open for debate, and I think that the film shows various viewpoints of the change discussion.

MOI JR: How do you feel being non-Black covering Black subjects from different classes in Swazi society?

Michael Skolnik: I feel humbled. Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to be able to meet people from all around the world and have them share their stories with me. As a white male in America, I was born with a tremendous amount of privilege and power. Without even taking into account the economic status I was born into, just being white and being a man put me at a tremendous advantage. And I feel I was lucky enough to recognize that at a young age.

So, with this power comes great responsibility. And I had to ask myself what I was going to do with this power. Was I going to follow many of my peers into Wall Street, law school or a business that continues to make the rich richer and the poor poorer? These were questions I had to ask myself during my teenage years.

I made a very concrete decision that if I had the opportunity to share the stories of those that do not have the chance to tell their own, then that’s what I would do. So, I have traveled the world during the past 12 years and made films about people whose stories should be heard by not just me, but by everyone. I look back, and I recognize that this is the power of our generation, a generation that I am proud to be a part, a generation that no longer accepts a culture of segregation, but rather integration. This is why I am proud to say I am part of the hip-hop generation. However, the last thing I can say is every time I have the chance to spend time with people who come from a different experience than I did, I feel blessed to be in their presence. It makes me a much better person.

MOI JR: Did the masses in the community where you were covering the resistance see your finished product? How did they feel about it? What about the royal family?

Michael Skolnik: I showed the film to the princess. I will respect her and not talk too much about her reaction or the conversation we had after the screening. I do not know if any other family members have seen the film – I hope so. I have been told that the film has been banned in Swaziland and that anyone in possession of the film can be charged with sedition. However, I know the film has been seen by many people in Swaziland and in fact there are organizations within South Africa and Swaziland that are using the film to better organize and recruit.

MOI JR: Princess Pashu seemed to be disturbed when she went to the orphanage. Off camera how would you describe her demeanor before and after this visit?

Michael Skolnik: I think her entire reaction was captured on camera. She was greatly moved by that experience, as was I. It was a moment in my life I will never forget, watching this beautiful young woman see with her own eyes the desperation in her own country.

MOI JR: What other documentaries have you done? What are you working on now?

Michael Skolnik: I am currently co-directing a documentary with Emmanuelle Schick about the evolution of the chemical industry. “Lockdown, USA,” which is a documentary about Russell Simmons and his quest to end the Rockefeller Drug Laws, will be released on DVD in January 2009. I am finishing another documentary with the same co-director from “Lockdown, USA,” Rebecca Chaiklin, about Wyclef Jean and his mission to bring peace to Haiti. And I am going back to narrative features, as I am directing a film that Brian Grazer/Imagine is producing about Haiti as well. I am also excited to report that I have officially partnered with FADER Films and we will begin to finance and produce great movies in the coming months and years.

MOI JR: Thank you for your time.

People can get this film from www.firstrunfeatures.com, netflix and Amazon.com. For more information on the Minister of Information JR and the Block Report Radio show, hit www.blockreportradio.com.

7 thoughts on “‘Without the King’: Meet the director, Michael Skolnik

  1. Swazi Media

    People might like to know that the documentary Without the King has caused a great deal of controversy in Swaziland itself. You can’t buy the DVD legally but copies are being passed around. To watch the video is a seditious act. Not surprisingly the official media in Swaziland have condemned the film and the director.

    To read more about this and the struggle for human rights in Swaziland, visit my blog at http://www.swazimedia.blogspot.com

    Reply
  2. Susu

    One would have to appreciate any film from Africa that places a POSITIVE EMPHASIS ON AFRICAN CULTURE. However, over the past 100 years of filmmaking, the very same pattern of showing tribal culture as the ONLY African culture has misled many.

    Africa is a very large and diverse region. There are variuos types of cultures in Africa and there are various types of people. Still, whenever Africa is discussed in the media, WHETHER IT IS IN THE US, JAPAN, CHINA OR EUROPE– the impression given to viewers about African culture is PRIMARILY THE TRIBAL CULTURE THAT IS ONLY ONE PART OF AFRICAN CULTURE.

    In like manner, any movies or documentaries dealing with African hisory emphasizes the tribal cultures and not the high cultures.

    Yet, before there was colonial conflict in Soutern Africa in which the Nguni and other Southern BaNtu people were involved in struggle with the Europeans 1500′s to 1900′s ( the Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi, Vendas and other cattle-keeping people), the very large, powerful and organized agricultural-trade and manufacturing states of West Africa, the Swahili region, Zimbabwe, Congo-Angola, Khemet, Cush, Ethiopia — all existed and all had high and advanced levels of civilization, military organization, state systems and a great and global system of trade and commerce.

    Not a single movie, documentary or historical/docudrama about these ancient African cultures can be found anywhere, except in some films that come from West Africa — albeit very few.

    When was the last time anyone saw a film about the very classical and sophisticated urban civilization of Benin where the world’s longest city walls and moats were built between the 1st century to the 8 century?

    When was the last time anyone saw a film about Benin’s Amazon warriors (Dahomey) with their coats of mail and coral armor, their unique weapons and their martial arts systems?

    Where are the films about the KINGSHIP SYSTEM IN AFRICA (which is sometimes portrayed by Nigerian filmmakers, who produce the largest number of films after the US and India)

    Where are the films about the journy of Meci to the Americas in the year 3113 BC with a flotilla of 12 ships, African sailors and their families and provisions, (says the Quiche Maya book, ‘Popul Vuh,” ( see “A History of the African-Olmecs,” http://www.authorhouse.com/BookStore/ItemDetail~bookid~7283.aspx )

    http://blackmalepowermovement.forumsland.com/blackmalepower-about62.html

    http://blackmalepowermovement.forumsland.com

    http://africanamericasworldnetworks.blogspot.com

    http://premiumvideos.onlinenigeria.com

    http://vidwo.onlinenigeria.com

    http://www.africanmoviechannel.tv/index.asp

    One of the great industries on this planet is FILM-MAKING AND MOVIE PRODUCTION. Black America and Africans should and must organize to learn from each other, revive their lost history and create films about that history that has been lost. It is from films that show the lost glory of Africans that we learn to understand who we are.

    For example, a culture that existed in the Sahara about 15,000
    BC spread to West Africa and to the Americas. The remnants of that culture also spread to Central and Southern Africa, Egypt, the Mediterranean, South Arabia, India, Southern China
    and elsewhere.

    Yet, no movies, no documentaries and very little has been written about this great global civilization (called the ‘Ethiopian Empire,” by the ancient Greeks that existed in ancient times (except what has been written by some scholars and writers, such as ‘Susu Economics,” and ‘A History of the African-Olmecs,” http://www.authorhouse.com

    Finally, all appreciation is due to the filmmaker, but we must represent African culture and history at various levels — not only the stereotypical ‘tribal’ culture that most people have been shown.

    http://pureblackafriam.blogspot.com

    http://www.cwo.com/~lucumi/runoko.html

    Reply
  3. Phil

    I’ve read quite a bit of African History but would enjoy watching movies of such. Our identity lies in our history but as long as our people taught Euro history we will never know our true identity. Black who make movies only make those that they think will sell such as violent movies and those filled with sex.

    Reply
  4. sibusiso

    You guyz are being true to yourself…dat documentory is lacking some truth there and there. I have the copy in ma computer. The ‘so called angry’ lot is nuting but a gang of guys i was with in secondary school at Salesion High school,in Manzini, Swaziland. They were school haters and dagga smokers always bullying us around. They wasted their time and now u go about listening to lazie brats who want to ;live on handouts…unfortunately they will die still pointing fingers at any successful being…King Mswati has done nuting wrong to any one for your info… Corruption is done by people employed at the government offices and not Mswati!! The yung princess loves the poor swazies, she and her yunger bro have a charity organization which is controlled by their aunts and not royalty which donates every year shool materials to the poverty stricken primary school around the lowveld….buy u neva documented that in yo movie…it’s bad to crush other people if u are a peace maker. I did luv the documentry but dont stab others if u are to succeed in life….

    Reply
  5. simphiwe

    i am a political activist living in exile myself; my father has just got back to Swaziland after he had been kicked out in 1992. we live, eat, and sleep politics because that is the only life we know. i dont have the video myself, but have watched a number of clips; if you guys dont mind sparing me the copy. i am currently working with, and will be leading a group of young intellectuals in a non-violent demonstration in Swaziland (you can quote me). i dont have hatred towards anyone, i love the kingdom, but i feel that the king has too much power to himself, and dont get me wrong i am not after power… all i seek in justice; and will do “anything under the sun to get it.” For it is clear to me that the leaders of Swaziland do not see the sufferings of the nation. I sneaked the during the week (April, 2009) to witness the delivery of a fleet costing about E25m (enough to feed the whole nation with three meals a day for 3 months).

    to conclude: A REVOLUTION IS THE ONLY WAY FORWARD IN RECLAIMING OUR RIGHTS; WE DON’T WANT VIOLENCE THOUGH. Freedom and justice, as a man you’d know that they are not given to you, but you have to take it from whoever denies it for you.
    And this revolution “WILL” be televised!!!

    I stand to be corrected… VIVA!!!

    Reply
  6. Nandi

    It’s amazing that someone would want to dampen our country and King like this shame on you Michael Skolnik,the people that you took a video of at MONENI LOOK CLOSELY and you’ll see that these people could do better than what you published if they would stop sitting for alcohol the whole day and go and work. Also in all states,countries there are princes and princessess of those democratic countries ruled by presidents why?the schools they go to, their homes are gaurded, frankly and honestly every person who is in power gets special treatment what’s so different with Swaziland? just because God has blessed us with peace that is hard to swallow so you must even grab at straws to make us look bad,let me correct you my friend if you want a dictator go to the USA, the US wants everyones moves and activities known to her, what you do in your country, what activity you do must be approved by her according to her standards not yours and mind you that particular country that’s being told what to do has tried and tested it’s method and it works but no the US wants things done her way just because she has the financial muscle, then you go calling our King a dictator, look around my friend at the countries you say are democratic there’s infighting day in and out and some of the democratically elected are toppled from their democratic seats, the corruption in their systems it’s shocking. Why don’t you give yourself the chance Michael and look at our country with all honesty of heart and see how well we are doing instead of giving the world the wrong impression and I’ll say it again our King is not a dictator he’s the best that’s ever happened to this continent so please next time you want to make a movie of our beautiful country get your facts right and tell the truth thank you.

    Reply
  7. bogani

    Nandi poor girl I know these people you talk about. I love my country but hate my government. Swaziland could be a paradise but for these people who think it is there to serve them not them to serve it. We are not citizens but chattel to be fleeced to maintain their life style. All our neighbors are progressing and growing. The best and brightest of Swaziland are in SA, U.S.A.,& u.K. and the king says come back and invest in Swaziland. Him first I say take the money from our taxes in England, Switzerland, and now Middle East. People to give up their civil rights for peace and safety deserve neither. Democracy is not perfect but it is the only form of government that those in power are answerable to those they rule.

    Reply

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