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Death of a Princess (1980)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

Saudi Arabia, 15 July 1977. English worker Steve Jackson witnesses an execution, which newspapers report as a princess being killed for love. Discovering this at a dinner party in London in July 1978, Christopher Ryder is fascinated by the princess's assertion of identity and its resonance with conflicting pressures on young Arabs, including radical Islam, radical politics, Women's Liberation and Western influences. The granddaughter of the King's eldest brother, she rejected her arranged marriage. She is said to have volunteered the three confessions to adultery which the regime needs to impose the death penalty. Later, Ryder's Arab friend, Marwan Shaheen, argues that Arabs must be schizophrenic to survive in the modern world, and that the princess's story could reveal much about the Arab world.

In England, Ryder questions Steve Jackson - who surreptitiously photographed the scene, capturing the boyfriend's inefficient beheading but missing the shooting of the princess - and Elsa Grüber, a former nanny for the princess's grandfather. Grüber criticises Western depictions of Arab life. Writing her own book, she evasively tells Ryder that they should each tell their own story, but eventually shows him photographs of the princess dancing joyously among other Arab women.

Beirut, September 1978. Ryder discusses the princess's motives with friends, who argue that, despite her material comforts, her rebellion against imprisonment was comparable with the plight of Palestinians. Gossip Elie Salhawi argues that the stubbornness of the princess and her grandfather put them on a collision course. He claims the princess attended a women's college in Beirut, but Ryder discovers this is false.

In London, Elsa recalls meeting the princess in early 1976. The princesses were bored, trapped in palaces watching films, with illicit sex their only outlet. The princess loved Western pop music, and Elsa recalls their visit to London. Elsa heard about her death a week after being told that she had drowned. Ryder considers the different versions of the princess, from rebel to party girl, and Marwan suggests that she was punished as an example to other women who experienced other cultures; subsequently, laws were passed restricting women's rights to work and travel.

October 1978. Ryder visits Saudi Arabia, a mixture of modernity and tradition. A British diplomat stresses the case's sensitivity and speculates that the girl is still alive, a schizophrenic in a Geneva clinic, and that a Bedouin family sold a girl to be executed in her place.

Businesswoman Mme Quataajy assures Ryder that women are not restricted, and that the supposedly restrictive veil can be feminine. Other interviewees state that Jackson was a CIA plant to discredit Arabs, and that the princess visited Paris. Ryder visits the car park where the execution took place.

At a women's university, Ryder - accompanied by an Information Ministry official - hears about strict male-female segregation. Elsewhere, a female interviewee claims that Saudi Arabia is not a Muslim country because Islam is democratic and does not turn women into property; that an autocratic regime has perverted Islam; that the veil was imposed 1,000 years after the Prophet by the Ottoman Empire as a colonising act; and that Western countries, who took over from the Turks, deliberately support such regimes in order to control Arabs. For her, the princess's rebellion showed that she was fighting for proper Islam. Ryder replies that he has not been given the truth, but just another version of the truth.

This interviewee leads Ryder to an insider who describes the vacuous lives of princesses, who drove up a 'pickup road' to select men for sex. The princess met her boyfriend in Saudi Arabia, not in Beirut or London, and knew him for barely three weeks. The princess faked her own drowning and, after hiding in a hotel, tried to go abroad, but was caught at the airport.

Returning to Britain, Ryder is annoyed by the inaccuracies in the story he was originally told, and wonders about the unexplained four-day gap between arrest and execution. Marwan argues that, because of his Western position, Ryder focuses on this rather than major issues like the responsibility for preserving the regime. He adds that the princess's actions gave meaning to Ryder's journey, but Ryder denies that they had any meaning.

We see the princess dancing.