First Run Features // 2007 // 84 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // September 4th, 2008
The shocking and astonishing true story of Swaziland.
Without the King is a thoughtful and melancholy documentary about the beginnings of an uprising. There are scenes of violence, tragedy, and poverty, but the documentary's tone isn't incendiary or even urgent. Some viewers might find this frustrating, expecting a more aggressive approach. For the most part, the slow, deliberate pacing actually works far more effectively in laying out a case against Swaziland's King Mswati III and his regime. Instead of hammering viewers, Without the King draws them gradually into its point of view. It's a refreshing change from other documentaries, and, apart from a noticeable flaw, Without the King tells its story meticulously.
Without the King's pacing is all the more unusual when you consider the story it does tell. The film is about the one remaining pure monarchy on the entire continent of Africa. The country of Swaziland, on the southern tip of the continent, is about the size of New Jersey and contains a little over 1 million people, but its ruler, King Mswati III, wields more absolute power over his country than possibly any leader on Earth. He appoints the parliament and cabinet, controls all of the country's capital from a bank account in his own name, and selects eager young brides for his harem (he has thirteen wives when the documentary begins and takes another before it's over). He lives in a colossal palace with rooms full of marble and gold, owns a fleet of luxury cars and a jet, and pals around with world leaders like Tony Blair and Fidel Castro. Meanwhile, the rest of his country lives in poverty so squalid that it ranks amongst the worst in the world. The average Swazi earns about 21 cents a day, lives in a tiny mud hut, and survives on scavenged chicken heads and intestines. The rate of HIV/AIDS infection in Swaziland is almost 50 percent, and the country's average life expectancy is just thirty-one years.
Without the King tells this story with interviews with King Mswati; Princess Pashu, his eldest daughter; Swazi relief workers; and ordinary citizens, some of whom are plotting a revolt. Additionally, there is no narration, but clips and title cards are used to fill in statistics and a history of the country. The story of Pashu is the most compelling. At the beginning of the film, she is a rather spoiled princess who aspires to be a rapper and who is sent off to attend a private Christian college in California. At first, she is dismissive of many of the stories surrounding her father, but as the film progresses and she sees the wider world outside her country, she begins to realize how narrow her view has been. A turning point for her comes when she learns that her father has taken a new wife who's actually younger than she is, and there she begins to ask a few questions about the life she's led until now. This is contrasted with footage of AIDS hospices and orphanages, as well as citizens who live in poverty struggling to get by and some who begin to plan marches, protests, and even anti-government attacks. The film does not justify the violent attacks that take place against the government (in fact, it goes out of its way not to even show any footage of them) but it does lay out how the people, even as much as they wanted to avoid the kind of bloody civil wars that have afflicted other African countries, could become desperate enough to resort to bombings and shootings.
In many ways, Without the King's low-key approach becomes an ironic reflection of King Mswati himself. When we see him interviewed, what's surprising is that he is not easy to caricature. He appears soft-spoken, thoughtful, and genuinely concerned with the problems facing his country. He may in fact be an excellent actor (he's been king since he turned 18 over twenty years ago), but it seems hard to reconcile the appalling greed and arrogance shown by his regime with the man himself. What the film does make clear, however, is that he is not a dynamic leader. He never seems to ask questions, he always defers to his advisers, and he doesn't take the initiative on anything. The film includes footage of a convention to ratify a new constitution (one that merely ratifies the king's power while adding a few token changes). During the meeting Mswati does nothing but let everyone else speak, then adds a few meaningless remarks and walks out of the room. No scene better exemplifies how Mswati is absolutely the wrong leader for a country that's in the shape Swaziland is in.
For most of its running time, Without the King's deliberate pace works like a shot. For the last 15-20 minutes, though, the film isn't nearly as successful. Simply put, Without the King doesn't end, it just stops. The film seems to be building to some sort of closure or catharsis and the last few scenes do show some changes happening to a couple of the protagonists. These changes, however, are just left hanging, without any follow-ups or updates. Viewers will be asking what happened after the scenes depicted near the end. It's a sign of just how effective Without the King is up to that point that it leaves viewers wanting more of the story it's telling.
The extras, unfortunately, do not fill in these holes. The DVD includes the film's trailer (2:05) and some deleted scenes (21:56), which consist of more interviews and footage. These add more detail to the story (one of Mswati's government stooges seems especially oily), but they don't answer any of the questions left at the end. The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer and PCM stereo mix are both satisfactory. Nonetheless, despite its disappointing lack of a resolution, Without the King serves, for the most part, as a damning portrait of a leader who's hopelessly out of touch with his people, and viewers looking for a fascinating documentary that tells a sadly neglected story will find it worth watching. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 84 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Additional Interviews and Deleted Scenes