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Death of a Princess (1980)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Death of a Princess (1980)
ATV/WGBH (Boston) and others for ITV, tx. 9/4/1980
115 mins, colour
DirectorAntony Thomas
ProducerMartin McKeand
 Antony Thomas
ScriptAntony Thomas

Cast: Suzanne Abou Taleb (Princess); Paul Freeman (Christopher Ryder); Judy Parfitt (Elsa GrĂ¼ber); Samir Sabri (Elie Salhawi); Ismet Raafat (The Old Princess); Zia Mohyeddin (Marwan Shaheen)

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A British journalist investigates the public execution of an Arab princess for adultery. Questioning her motives leads to considerations of the social pressures operating in the Arab world.

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Choosing to dramatise his research into the execution of a Saudi princess, documentary filmmaker Anthony Thomas became caught up in one of the most serious drama-documentary controversies, resulting in a diplomatic confrontation between Britain and Saudi Arabia.

For Christopher Ryder, the rebellion of the late princess against her family demonstrates divergent social pressures on Arab peoples, including Islamic tradition, radical politics, feminism and Western influences. Her troubled sense of self is reflected in a dramatic structure that makes her identity unstable: as in Citizen Kane (US, 1941) or Rashomon (Japan, 1951), Thomas returns to incidents from differing, subjective viewpoints, and the princess becomes the subject of conflicting descriptions and sometimes untrustworthy information. While travelling to meet an eyewitness, Ryder emerges into the light from a dark tunnel, but if this implies arriving at an understanding, his interviews lead him away from it.

Like the Englishman who missed the gunshots because he was struggling to find a decent vantage point, Ryder struggles for other ways of seeing. Ultimately, he can only describe her rebellion as meaningless. This emphasis on unknowability is comparable with the failure of imagination in Western understanding of the East which Edward Said described in his book Orientalism. Ryder's restricted interpretive position is acknowledged by his friend Marwan and, although his voice-over seeks to explain and filter his interviewees' disparate viewpoints, he could perhaps be described as another unreliable witness.

Thomas protects his interviewees by changing their names and identities, but critics predictably seized upon the consequent blurring of fact and fiction to question its truthfulness. This was heightened by former writer Penelope Mortimer's description of its 'fabrication' (she later clarified that she meant dramatic construction, not invention). This was used to support criticisms of the content which offended the Muslim community, particularly the sexual activities of Saudi princesses and the promotion of a radical Islam through one character's argument that Islam was being perverted by autocratic regimes.

Holding the British Government responsible, King Khalid cancelled a trip to London and expelled the British ambassador. The Thatcher Government condemned the programme and the Foreign Secretary apologised. When it was shown on PBS in America, advertisements (funded by an oil company) called it a 'fairy tale'. Drama-documentary methods were condemned during Parliamentary debates, despite a failure by critics to identify any untruths, thereby demonstrating that attacks on content had again been displaced onto form.

Dave Rolinson

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