SEVENTEEN-YEAR-OLD Ayoub (Ayoub Elasri) has a decision to make, and his fate is in his hands. Will he choose life? Or will he choose death?
It is one of a number of choices that the main character must make in “Prince” (“Prins”), the debut feature from Dutch director Sam de Jong.
The film makes its North American premiere today in select U.S. cities and on VOD. (See video below).
Also opening today in U.S. theaters is the much anticipated, searing "Straight Outta Compton." The film is essentially an autobiography of the Compton, California rap group N.W.A. and takes its title from the group's debut album. Two of the film's producers – Ice Cube and Dr. Dre – were members of the now-defunct N.W.A., which attracted many supporters and detractors for its first hit and rallying cry, "Fuck the Police." (See video below).
Meanwhile, nothing is spoiled by disclosing that in "Prince," Ayoub chooses life. It is the events preceding that decision that are worthy of discovery in the coming-of-age tale about acceptance, self-esteem, self-identity and R-E-S-P-E-C-T in this global, digital, uber consumeristic age.
Like many first-time feature directors, SdJ draws heavily on his life experience for his maiden project. “I highly identify with growing up and trying to belong to a group and chasing this idea of being a rock star. And that’s what Ayoub was trying to be,” he reveals during an intimate chat at an afterparty at a swanky Lower East Side loft following the New York premiere screening of “Prince” at the New Museum.
It’s summertime and the living is uneasy for Ayoub and his friends in their suburban Amsterdam housing estate, or project. Everything about this crew, as prescribed by its insular world, is wrong. They are awkward, virginal, sartorially challenged, without wheels and without funds. Further and most lowering, Ayoub yearns for a mocking girl, a blond siren who belongs to another. Another who has everything Ayoub does not.
Life is so unfair!
Ayoub&Co. spend their long days, wishing for rain, popping pumpkin seeds like they are going out of style and bragging about what they would if they could. When Ayoub discovers that his half-sister is involved with one of his friends, he explodes, leading to the turning point in “Prince.”
“He tried to stand out and be swaggy,” SdJ says of his protagonist. “And in order to become that he loses sight of what is important to him and slides into criminality. I find that is an interesting mechanism in modern-day, 21st-century life growing up on the outskirts of a big city.”
An award-winning director, SdJ has several short films, music videos and commercials to his credit. He makes the most of a miniscule budget with "Prince."
Virtually all of the film is shot on the premises of the project that is its setting. There are no sorties into Amsterdam. No police, just the drudgery that is the day-to-day existence of these youngsters, part of the underclass of The Netherlands.
Yet, viewers of “Prince” should not feel cheated. With an economy of words – spoken and unspoken – scenes, moods and a generous amount of propulsive and sometimes anachronistic music, SdJ delivers a portrait that is rich, deep, thoughtful and utterly engaging.
The acting is almost universally strong and credible, considering that many of the young players are street kids.“ I met them while making several short films and a doc," SdJ explains. “They live in the streets where we shot the film.”
As for impromptu acting lessons: “We grabbed each other’s hands and we just walked into the abyss together sort of. Yeah,” the director recalls.
One player who is not a street kid is Dutch rapper Freddy Tratlehner. His performance is weird and borders on some indefinable caricature. What he does manage well, however, is the menace threatening to ejaculate from his madness.
AE as Ayoub puts in a particularly strong performance. He is by turns vulnerable, adorable, loyal, principled and optimistic – a natural actor. The scenes with his father are heart-wrenching. Here is a manchild about to negotiate the treacherous rapids of adulthood seeking guidance, connection and love to no avail.
A response to "Prince" of many U.S. viewers may be that of Yours Truly – and …??? The film had its world premiere in February at the Berlin International Film Festival and earned an honorable mention. Essentially though, “Prince” is one of myriad iterations of “Boyz n the Hood.”
The film’s saving nuance, however, is a depiction of an underclass in a country that most Americans – in fact most people in the world – don’t readily suspect of having one. It does. At the bottom of the economic heap, along with the white Dutch, are immigrants and children of immigrants, mainly from Africa, Asia, Central Europe and Eastern Europe.
Laura (Sigrid ten Napel) turns heads in "Prince."
“I feel like whether it is in Europe or the whole world now, it is liberal and consumer-driven. Our new religion is being a pop star or looking like one – at least that is what the music industry and the fashion industry tells us to be,” SdJ says by way of explanation of the designer label-fueled striving of much of the world’s poor. “But many people can’t be that, but still their dream is still to become like that.”
Unlike in the United States, in The Netherlands and most of the countries in the European western world, the poor white are not mainly integrated into the middle-income white population. Instead, they are warehoused with all of the poor regardless of skin color or citizenship status.
“…If you don’t have access to higher education or certain talents, you don’t have a lot of ways to achieve such [pop star] big dreams, so you can either settle on mediocrity, so to say, or you can drift into criminality,” asserts SdJ, a 2012 graduate of the Dutch Film Academy.
“Or you try this new religion, this pop religion. It’s intriguing and difficult for many people and that is what I try to relate to in my film.”
The Amsterdam native makes subtle references in “Prince” to the racism that is all-too prevalent among the Dutch. In June, for instance, The Netherlands inherited an Eric Garner-like incident when Aruban tourist Mitch Henriquez died in the custody of police in The Hague.
Considered the latest of too many troubling encounters between Dutch law enforcement and men of color, the death by asphyxiation set off several days of protests in July in The Hague.
In “Prince,” Ayoub’s mother is white Dutch and his father is Moroccan. More than once it is pointed out that Ayoub’s sister is only his half sibling. Presumably, her father is white Dutch. Further, many damning references are made about Ayoub’s father. A junkie, a bum. And a Moroccan.
Many among the Dutch do not think highly of Moroccans. Like blacks and Latinos in the United States, Moroccans are too often singled out by police for questioning. As recently as last year, a Dutch public official asserted that Moroccan culture is inferior to Dutch culture.
In "Prince," Ayoub takes the denigration of his father in stride, as he does so much. Still, the film leaves the viewer with cautious optimism, much to the chagrin of SdJ’s street players.
“They think it’s too sweet. They want it to be portrayed more badass,” he says, chuckling. "The ending for them is too positive. The ending it’s like … it just flirts like with a fairytale. And I think their lives are more gritty than that.”
Don't shoot, Ayoub.
Indeed, there are several parallels between the life of SdJ and his principal character. Both come from broken homes; were raised in an Amsterdam suburb. SdJ discloses that he, too, had a complicated relationship with his sibling brother. He was in want of some R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Why leave off on such a sanguine note?
“Because my shorter work always ended in a negative way, but I am pretty optimistic as a person and I wanted to exude that. I wanted to exude hope.”
“Prince” (“Prins”) is not rated; visit http://www.princethemovie.com/ to learn more about the film.
"Straight Outta Compton" is rated R for language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence, and drug use; visit http://www.straightouttacompton.com/ to learn more about the film.