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11 June 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: A Better Life Without the King

They have Coca Cola. They have great palaces. They have a rapping princess. They have a great tradition that they have reclaimed once they gained independence from Great Britain.

The king has been visited by Nelson Mandela, Prince Charles and Michael Jackson--great honors for a landlocked country about the size of New Jersey, located in Southern Africa.

A largely Christian nation (40 percent Zionist--a combination between Christianity and native beliefs--and 20 percent Catholic according to the CIA Factbook), Swaziland is also plagued by deep poverty and HIV/AIDS. The estimated life expectancy is 31.7 for men and 32 for women. It has the world's highest HIV/AIDS rate in the world, resulting in high infant mortality rates and low life expectancy.

The world's last absolute monarch, King Mswati III, is the king of the title of Michael Skolnik's grainy but thought-provoking 2007 documentary, Without the King. There are no princes in this film although we know that his eldest daughter, Sikhanyiso, has a brother.

We are introduced to Mswati III on his coronation day. He is 18, handsome and shy. The year is 1986. He was the second of 67 sons; his father had 70 wives at the time of his death in 1982. Mswati III was educated in England at the Sherborne School. From 1983 until his coronation, two of his late father's wives served as regent.

In comparison to his late father, he has a modest number of wives: 13. His first two have sons but none of them, according to tradition, can become king.

Sikhanyiso is the eldest daughter of his third wife who married Mswati when she was 16. She is a college student in California and although we see her in the movie, we do not see her elder half brothers or her brother. It is unlikely that she would replace Mswati III as some reviewers have projected.

She is seen as a rebel princess, a title that she also mentions in the documentary. Tradition requires that a special counsel choose a wife and the crown prince. How will she be able to serve her country under another half-sibling's rule? We don't know.

Footage of Sikhanyiso, her mother and Mswati III are intercut with scenes of poverty, and angry protesters who say they will prevail against tear gas and bullets.

She does mention the king's solution to the HIV/AIDS crisis--a five year ban on sex for women under the age of 21. The ban was ended a year early and did nothing to stop the rate of HIV/AIDS infection. During that time, the king took another wife under the age of 21.

As a woman comments, it's hard to contain HIV/AIDS when "they look at him...why does the king continue...taking more wives" and feel that they can take more wives.

The documentary touches on the discomfort of a daughter whose father marries a woman younger than her but we do not see this new bride. The documentary doesn't mention how two of Mswati's wives have left him. That would have made interesting commentary.

The documentary does touch on accusations of forcing young girls to marry him and Sikhanyiso comments,"...a lot of the girls want to be there anyways."

Of course they do. Poverty and HIV/AIDS on one side and extravagant luxury on the other side? What kind of choice is the culture giving women?

Both Sikhanyiso and her mother touch on the paranoia that exists, accusations of murder attempts and threats, in a world where there is little future and prosperity outside of the royal family and who becomes the next king will have a great deal of control. One wonders if the many children--cousins and half-brothers and sisters of the current king also live in luxury or have fallen on hard times.

While the documentary ends with Sikhanyiso lamenting how the government has money but has deserted a small village, saying that her country will "turn around" in "her time" is hopeful and somewhat misleading.

She is 18. Her father is in his forties. She has brothers and uncles to contend with. Her father, once a bashful youth making his first public speech has grown soft and self-indulgent--a quality that Sikhanyiso seems to share in her view of a king and his responsibilities. At least she doesn't say something like let them eat cake.

In the end, this documentary glosses over some issues to emphasize the HIV/AIDS crisis and poverty, but stands as strong commentary against monarchy and polygamy.

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