Without The King

2008, Movie, NR, 84 mins


It's good to be the king in the small, southern African nation of Swaziland, the continent's last absolute monarchy. In fact, it's great.

Swaziland's former ruler, King Sobhuza II, suspended his country's first-ever constitution, stripped members of parliament and the prime minister -- all his own appointees -- of power and banned all political parties. His son, King Mswati III, reigns much as his father did, living in the kind of luxury generally associated with Third World dictators: a fleet of luxury automobiles, private jet, 3/4 of the country's wealth (including $10 billion in a personal account) and seven royal residences to house his 13 wives and 22 children. Yes, it's good to be the king of Swaziland. It's not so good to be one of its citizens, nearly 70 percent of whom live on less than 63 cents a day and would probably starve without ongoing assistance help from the World Food Program. Though Swazilanders pay taxes, health care is virtually nonexistent; their average life expectancy is the lowest in the world -- a shocking 31 years -- while their rate of HIV/AIDS infection is among the highest. The enormous disparity between the life of the Swazi people and the man who rules over them -- as well as the increasingly angry reform movement agitating to bridge that gulf -- is the subject of Michael Skolnik's intelligent but incomplete-feeling documentary. Skolnik (ON THE OUTS) focuses on the turmoil that erupted when the king, hoping to lend the appearance of movement toward a constitutional monarchy, drafted a constitution that critics complained paid lip service to democracy without actually changing anything. Youthful activists from the country's poorest townships mounted increasingly violent actions, including bombing official buildings, while leaders from the banned political parties organized protests, some of which ended in clashes with police.

Meanwhile, in California, King Mswati III's eldest child, 18-year-old Princess Sikhanyiso is adjusting to life at a Christian college. In interviews with Skolnik, Pashu, as the Princess is generally called, defends her father's reign: "Without the king we have no culture," she argues. She blames poor advisors for some of his bad public policy, though his polygamy and the poor example it sets when health advocates urge single sexual partners clearly troubles her. But Pashu's determination to serve her homeland, first by getting the best education she can, opens her eyes to the plight of Swaziland's 80,000 estimated AIDS orphans. Her journey becomes the somewhat unsatisfying centerpiece of the film, perhaps for lack of any greater resolution to Swaziland's ongoing instability. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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