Death of a Princess
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|Death of a Princess|
|Written by||Antony Thomas|
|Directed by||Antony Thomas|
|Country of origin||United Kingdom|
|Original language(s)||English, Arabic|
Death of a Princess is a British 1980 drama-documentary produced by ATV in cooperation with WGBH in the United States. The drama is based on the true story of Princess Misha'al, a young Saudi Arabian princess and her lover who had been publicly executed for adultery. The documentary's depiction of the customs of Saudi Arabia led many governments to oppose its broadcast, under threat of damaging trade ramifications.
The film was based on numerous interviews by journalist Antony Thomas, who, upon first hearing the story, grew passionately curious about its veracity, soon drawing upon contacts in the Arab world for their insights and opinions. Because of the candid and sometimes critical nature of the interviews, Thomas and ATV bosses decided not to make the film as a straight documentary but instead to dramatise it with actors.
Thomas himself was played by Paul Freeman under the name "Christopher Ryder". The identities of the interviewees were obscured, and the actors chosen to replace them were based only loosely on their subjects. The character of Elsa Gruber, played by Judy Parfitt, was based on Rosemarie Buschow, a German woman who had worked for the Saudi Royal Family as a nanny.
There was only one exception, an Arab family who played themselves. The fictitious nation in which the drama was set in was called "Arabia", which some viewers took to mean Saudi Arabia. The name of the Princess was never said.
Death of a Princess depicts Thomas' focus on "the Princess", as her story became his vehicle through which important parts of Islamic culture in Saudi Arabia was revealed, showing facets of Saudi Islamic traditions and customs, as well as gender roles and sexuality in society. Thomas later explained that he had only reconstructed scenes where he was confident that they did happen, although he included film of interviewees telling him information which he did not believe.
A critically acclaimed film, it caused a great deal of controversy when it was shown on ITV in the United Kingdom on 9 April 1980, provoking an angry response from the Saudi government. While resisting pressure not to show the film, ATV agreed to include an introductory comment that said:
The programme you are about to see is a dramatized reconstruction of certain events which took place in the Arab world between 1976 and 1978. We have been asked to point out that equality for all before the law is regarded as paramount in the Moslem world.
The British ambassador to Riyadh, James Craig, was asked to leave the country, restrictions were placed on the issuing of visas to British businessmen, and Saudi Arabia, along with Lebanon, banned British Airways' Concorde from its airspace, making its flights between London and Singapore unprofitable. While the Saudi response had initially driven a UK press reaction against the attempted censorship, when export orders began to be cancelled, the press began to question whether it had been right to show the film. British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington found the film "deeply offensive", he "wished it had never been shown", but "to ban a film because we do not like it or even because it hurts our friends" was not an option for the country's government.
Similarly, the US government received enormous political pressure from Saudi Arabia to censor its broadcast. On 8 May 1980, Mobil Oil placed an advertisement in The New York Times and other newspapers condemning the film, which it described as "a new fairy tale". It quoted a letter to the New Statesman by Penelope Mortimer, who had worked with Thomas on the film, who said:
With the exception of Barry Millner, who had already sold his story to the Daily Express, Rosemary [sic] Buschow, and the Palestinian family in Beirut, every interview and every character in the film is fabricated. The "revelation" of the domestic lives of the Saudi princesses—man-hunting in the desert, rendezvous in boutiques—was taken entirely on the evidence of an expatriate divorcée, as was the story of the princess first seeing her lover on Saudi television. No real effort was made to check up on such information. Rumour and opinion somehow came to be presented as fact... the audience, foolishly believing it to be authentic, is conned.
While Buschow had advised Thomas on the making of the film, she later told the Associated Press that it should not have been made, adding that "it achieved nothing but discord... every family has a black sheep, and this is a large family of around 5,000 people".
After some stalling, it was eventually broadcast by the PBS programme World in most of the US on 12 May 1980, although many PBS stations did not do so. For example, in South Carolina, the PBS affiliate cancelled broadcast of the film, a decision influenced by fact that the then-U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, John C. West, had formerly been the state's Governor.
In the Netherlands, NOS showed the programme, despite facing considerable opposition from the government and businesses, while in Sweden, the rights were bought, at a premium, by a video company, Scanvideo, which decided that the economy "would suffer great harm if it were shown, and decided that it must not be shown". In Australia, the programme was shown on the Seven Network, although the acting Prime Minister, Doug Anthony, denounced the film as "grossly offensive to the Saudi Arabian Royal Family and government", which could jeopardise trade deals with Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries.
As a result of playing the role of the Princess, Egyptian actress Suzanne Abou Taleb, according to People magazine, "was put on a blacklist by Egyptian TV, film and theatre producers, who are dependent on Saudi petrodollars". The measure had exactly the opposite of its intended effect, increasing her public prominence and she became one of the most popular actresses in Egypt, under the name Sawsan Badr. Paul Freeman's performance as Christopher Ryder was seen by Steven Spielberg, who noted his piercing eyes; this observation led to his casting as René Belloq in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
In a retrospective interview for the Frontline rebroadcast, Thomas described his reasons for making the film:
I set off to investigate this story with the idea of doing it as a drama, and gradually I realized that something completely different was developing. Where I traveled through the Arab world, the story was celebrated. Everyone had their own version of that story, all very, very different. ... Whoever I spoke to—whether they were Palestinians, whether they were conservative Saudis, whether they were radicals—they attached themselves to this princess. She'd become a myth. And they identified with her, and they kind of co-opted her to their cause. People were discussing things with me about their private lives, about their sexual feelings, about their political frustrations, that they'd never discussed with me before. ...Somehow this princess was sort of like a catalyst. And after thinking about it seriously, I thought, my gosh, this is perhaps an even more interesting story to tell.
In Edward Said's book Covering Islam, he discusses the release of Death of Princess and the Saudi response. He argues that although the Saudis opposed the showing of the film and used their money to try and coerce PBS from televising it, they lacked the cultural capital that the West had over representation of Muslims in the media. Naturally, the Saudis opposed it for its implications of Saudi royal family corruption, but also because it only reinforced images of Sharia law that Westerners understand—punishment.
The film has never been broadcast again in the UK, although a clip was shown on a 2005 BBC documentary Imagining the Truth. There was a private screening at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts in 2005. It was re-broadcast in the US by Frontline in April 2005, for its 25th anniversary, under limited terms described in its original contract. Because of copyright and issues with royalties, it is not available for Internet viewing through PBS.
In popular culture
- Despite the controversy over the film, two tracks of its musical theme (namely "Pulstar" and "Alpha") by Vangelis were used for a long time as background music for interludes on Saudi national TV.
- Not the Nine O'Clock News made a spoof apology to the Saudis on their television series which was the first track on their eponymous 1980 album.
- The BBC comedy The Young Ones referred to the diplomatic crisis when a character dressed as an Arab sheikh told an aide that he wished to see the British ambassador. The aide replied "Certainly your Highness. Which piece would you like to see first?".
- A 1982 Yes Minister episode ("The Moral Dimension") refers to a diplomatic incident as "the greatest crisis since Death of a Princess".
- Emily Hahn "A Nanny in Arabia", New York Times, 8 February 1981
- David Brockman "Behind the Screens: Death of a Princess", Transdiffusion, 5 February 2008
- frontline: death of a princess: mobil oil ad | PBS
- Princess knew the risks for her and lover, Nashua Telegraph, 10 April 1980
- "South Carolina public TV cancels 'Death of Princess'", Wilmington Morning Star, 4 May 1980
- The "Death of a Princess' Controversy" by Thomas White and Gladys Ganley, Harvard University, 1983
- Egyptian Actress Suzanne Taleb Plays An Executed Saudi Princess—and Pays a Price of Her Own, People, 12 May 1980
- "Sawsan Badr", IMDb
- "The People Who Were Almost Cast". Empire Online. 22 April 2008. Retrieved 22 April 2008.
- Said, Edward. Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World. New York: Random House, 1996, pp. 69–79.
- PBS Frontline site
- Full transcript
- "The 'Death of a Princess' Controversy" by Thomas White and Gladys Ganley, Harvard University, 1983
- Death of a Princess at the Internet Movie Database
- Sawsan Badr at the Internet Movie Database
- CJR: 'The Reagans': What CBS Should Have Done
- ScreenOnline - Death of a Princess (1980)