Michael Skolnik’s documentary focuses on the world’s last absolute monarchy, the Kingdom of Swaziland in southern Africa. King Mswati III and his 14 wives live in extraordinary luxury in the midst of one of the world’s poorest countries – the life expectancy is 31 years (the world’s lowest) and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS is 42.6% (the world’s highest). The average Swazi makes 63 cents a day, and the nation is heavily reliant on outside relief agencies for food. Any attempt at debating this grave situation is squashed by a ban on political parties and a severe police presence that keeps dissenters in check (or in jail, as is often the case).
Of course, the disconnect between a nation’s rulers and the general population is not unique to Swaziland (consider the a*****e in the White House and his mild surprise to learn gasoline was heading to $4.00 a gallon). But Skolnik’s documentary makes the mistake of not asking the hard questions of the king, who is presented here as a benevolent and fairly benign presence. There is also too much emphasis on his daughter, Princess Sikhanyiso, who learns late of the economic inequities in her country when she goes abroad for college studies in California. The princess is a pretty but vapid young woman, and the fact she was barely aware of what transpired in her own country is too difficult to fathom.
To its credit, the film exposes the astonishing poverty and miserable living conditions of the majority of Swaziland’s people (the scene where rural villagers drink like animals from a water hole and eat animal intestines fished from garbage dumps is harrowing and nauseating). But at the same time, the film shows King Mswati hobnobbing with the likes of Pope John Paul II and Prince Charles – is anyone outside of Swaziland even aware of what is happening in that country? It is a shame the film doesn’t cast a wider net into deeper political waters – the outrage is barely scratched in this production.