"The Gate of an Arabian princess: a 'docu-drama'"
Christian Science Monitor
May 9, 1980
by Arthur Unger
One of the most controversial -- and timely -- films in the short history of the Public Broadcasting Service is being aired on most of that network's affiliates despite protests from the Saudi Arabian government. …
Whatever one's reservations may be -- and it is quite possible and proper to question certain aspects of this unusual pseudo-docudrama -- this is a film to see, to analyze, to question on its various implications as a social document, as an informational program, and as an entertainment. In its own exotic way "Princess" may prove to be a landmark film in the development of education-information-entertainment television. But the form itself -- docudrama -- is a problem. Although scripted and performed by professional actors throughout, this kind of program also attempts to convey the feeling of documentary accuracy in the presentation of its topical and often carefully researched subject matter, as well as in its tone. As a result, the form can be used to distort truth as easily as it can to serve it, leaving the viewer with no way of knowing where accuracy really lies.
"Princess" is the superbly photographed story -- a bit Somerset Maugham and a bit of "the lady or the tiger" in character -- of a reporter's five-month search for the truth concerning a Saudi Arabian princess supposedly executed and her boy-lover beheaded because of their three-week adulterous affair. In order for the sentence to be carried out, the teen-age princess had to state three times before a Muslim court that she had committed the crime. Was she an empty-headed child or a better for women's rights?
The narrator, called Christopher Ryder in the film's odyssey but clearly filmmaker Antony Thomas, follows all available trails, visits friends, government officials, relatives, women's movement activists in and out of Saudi Arabia, investigates the oddly ambivalent position of women in fundamentalist Muslim states, follows many paths which are obviously untrue or the product of guilt, venom, or imagination. He re-creates in his mind's eye -- and on camera -- all of the supposed happenings and comes to the final conclusion that the real truth may never be known. …
But should it be told in this form?
"Death of a Princess" is the ultimate docudrama -- a form which television has expropriated for itself and which it seems to be using and misusing more and more.
Many docudramas -- dramatized informational programming -- would much better serve the viewers they were presented in strictly documentary form so that viewers could clearly understand that what they are viewing is fact. In the case of "Princess" and many other recent docudramas, the viewer is left with a hodgepodge conglomeration of real people, fictional characters, real incidents, and dramatized ones which make it absolutely impossible to ascertain where creative license has been taken. (The filmmaker in this case, however, insists that all interviews are based on real ones). …
"Death of a Princess" is a TV show to view, ponder, and perhaps learn from, but it is also a major problem for television itself to ponder.
"The Show Must Go On" [Editorial]
The Washington Post
May 11, 1980
The furor over Saudi Arabia's protests against the showing of "Death of a Princess" by the Public Broadcasting Service is both more and less than it is made out to be. The Saudi protest, and those of its oil partner, the Mobil Corporation, along with some of the heavier interventions of the State Department and certain members of Congress, make it essential that the show be seen on schedule Monday evening. None of this should even be negotiable. The outcry, of course, makes it inevitable that an extra large audience will tune in. The incident is more than it appears to be because, with the power that Saudi oil and financial resources confer, Saudi displeasure can have costly consequences. When the same film was shown in Britain, for instance, the Saudis expelled the British ambassador -- notwithstanding an official apology for the film -- and undertook a line of economic sanctions whose end, to British dismay, is not yet in sight.
The incident is -- so far -- less than it appears to be, however, because the official Saudi protests against the American showing have, by contrast, been phrased in very hedged terms. The Saudis have criticized a "docu-drama," which they find replete with "false episodes, serious inaccuracies and outright prejudice." But on the record at least, they have not asked PBS to cancel the show. They have asked that PBS and other news media "determine for themselves what the fictitious items and distortions are and … not report them to the American public as fact"-- to which the immediate response must be: how else can this be done except by canceling the show? The Saudis would also have liked a statement by the U.S. government characterizing the film as "distorted and inaccurate."
The State Department declined to go that far. But in a way this would have been preferable to its direct approach to PBS with a request that PBS assure its viewers "a full and balanced presentation." PBS intends to do that anyway, at least by their earliest public statements, by conducting a discussion of the show on the air after it is run, and it would have been well for the State Department to have left it alone in the first place.
The Saudis indicated that, though they are affronted by the show, and perhaps worried by the way it will play into an internal debate of their own, they did not wish to make the incident a test of their relationship with the United States. Perhaps they feel that American-Saudi relations are already under enough strain.
By contrast, Mobil in its ad has raised the stakes, declaring that "the best interest of the United States" is involved, and urges PBS to "review its decision to run this film." If Americans decline to delete television programs because foreign governments object to them, they will certainly decline when American corporations object, even corporations like Mobil, which heavily supports PBS. (We note, by the way, that it seems a grotesque "defense" of the First Amendment for a court in Texas to have ordered the film to be shown.) Perhaps Mobil is out in front acting for the Saudis, making the threats the retiring Saudis prefer not to be heard uttering in public themselves. If that is so, we are all better off replying just to the Saudis and telling them -- as now PBS is -- that the show is receiving precisely the critical dissection the Saudis have said it deserves and that good journalistic practice would have brought this about anyway, and that the show will go on.
"Death of a Princess" [Editorial]
April 19, 1980
Once upon a time Orson Welles, adapting H. G. Wells for radio, frightened New Yorkers into thinking that the Martians had landed. Nowadays our senses are so benumbed by the invasion of fact, fiction and the something in between from our television screens that the entry of true-life Martians might be dismissed as an intemperate lead into the next Star Wars sequel. A great grey area has emerged where contemporary history shades into invention. Saudi Arabian protests about Antony Thomas's "Death of a Princess", a two-hour "dramatised documentary" first shown in Britain on April 9th, are beneficial in that they have generated a sharp controversy about television's singular capacity for blending what might have happened into what actually did.
Television is not the only offender: writers experiment with what Norman Mailer calls "faction"; newspapers, sinners long before radio was invented, call it "informed speculation". But television, by entwining news film with feature film, can multiply both the impact and the confusion.
Mr. Thomas's film is in a special category, both because it deals with very recent events, and because most of those events are mysterious. It is known that, in 1977, a Saudi princess and her lover were publicly killed as punishment for their adultery. A bystander filmed the killings. Mr. Thomas sought to pursue the background to this brutal, medieval happening. But almost everyone he asked about it told a different story. There was no noble, romantic tale. There was plenty of wish-fulfilment by those who wanted to make the princess a martyr in the cause of freedom. The most plausible version is the simplest, and the most savage: a frivolous girl, caught out illicitly seeking pleasure, paid for it with her own and her companion's life.
Rather than drop the story, the filmmaker decided to produce his search as a sort of play, having both himself and those he interviewed played by actors. He also "reconstructed" a few selected episodes from the stories he was told. He persuaded the Associated Television Corporation to put up Ł100,000, and raised the same again, in undisclosed proportions, from television companies in Holland, America, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
Penalties of freedom
Saudi Arabia is an easy country to offend and could also be an expensive one. Britain and the other five countries involved in producing the film would be badly hurt if Saudi Arabia made up its mind to punish them. Quite correctly, the British and Dutch television companies decided that this was no reason for not showing the film; the American showing is scheduled for May 12th. The British foreign office, no less correctly, sent carefully worded messages expressing regret at any offence caused to the Saudis.
The Saudis, secretive and ingrown, are sensitive in a way that self-confident-bordering-on-smug countries such as Britain find hard to understand. But this, too, was no reason for not making the film, though it will be a pity if the film feeds the wretched legend that Arabs are rich, hypocritical hedonists descending in a body on London's nightclubs (apart from being a wild exaggeration, the legend, by encouraging too many Britons to be rude and greedy, is slowly keeping Arab visitors away). A sensitive subject merits sensitive handling but it should not, on that account, be left alone.
The Saudis appear to have chosen a more appropriate form of punishment than the snatching away of trade or contracts or oil. On Tuesday they announced that the General Secretariat of the Islamic Press in Jeddah intended to file a legal case against ATV. Various people are striving to change Saudi minds but if, improbably, the suit comes to court it will make intriguing hearing.
One of the film's most gripping sequences was almost certainly unfair: scenes of the bored princesses at home listening and dancing to pop music were followed by their predatory drive into the desert to pick, behind their veils, a temporary mate. The evidence for the vacuity of the princesses' lives is more substantial than for the promiscuity of those desert raids.
The Saudis and their supporters argue that "Death of a Princess" was an attack on Islam as well as on the Saudi kingdom. Many other Moslem Arabs disagree. For the criticism of Saudi Arabia underlying the film was not that it followed Islamic law but that it deviated from it.
Islamic law to most westerners means Islamic punishment: a simplified myth that this film will have fostered. The punishments are fierce, as corporal and capital punishment is bound to be in any place and by any means. The saving grace is that, for adultery, the burden of proof is almost impossible to sustain: conviction calls for four eyewitnesses to the act or a thrice-repeated confession. Princess Misha [sic] was not observed, did not, it seems, confess, and was not, perhaps, even tried. The film's judgment is that she and her lover were executed without trial on the orders of her grandfather, King Khalid's elder brother. That, if true, is not the law of Islam, it is the law of the tribe.
"A Saudi Squall on Public TV" [Op-Ed/Editorial]
The New York Times
May 9, 1980
… The world being what it is, and oil being oil, many now implore American public television not to risk further Saudi wrath by showing "Death of a Princess," as scheduled, next Monday evening.
Surely there is only one response consistent with American principle and self-respect: the show has to go on. That so basic a point needs restatement tells a good deal about the price America is paying for its addiction to imported oil. A few years ago, Turkey protested the showing of "Midnight Express," alleging the film gave a lurid picture of Turkish law. But there were then no protesting advertisements and no members of Congress ready to oblige by encroaching upon the Bill of Rights.
Saudi Arabia wants Americans to respect and understand its feudal traditions. Very well. But Americans can also insist on a measure of Saudi understanding of our democracy. What is obviously a difficult relationship can become impossible if Saudi rulers are led to believe that American liberties are subject to their veto. The dollars, weapons and friendship that Saudi Arabia obtains from the United States come to it under a Constitution which separates press and television from state. This rudimentary principle lies at the core of the argument, whatever the merits. or flaws, of "Death of a Princess."
The flaws in the film could hardly be more worrisome than the alacrity of some Americans to suppress its showing. Mobil Oil, which generously supports public television but now implores it to censor itself, may be simply defending an obvious business interest. No such excuse exists for members of Congress who have joined the chorus, or for the few public television stations that intend to black out the program. When a PBS station drops a show because it may affront Saudi Arabia, then the jibes about the "Petroleum Broadcasting Service" acquire a bitter truth.
Some maintain that the two-hour film is neither fair nor factual, and that its dramatized form exalts entertainment at the expense of information. These misgivings are fair enough, at any time, about any television documentary. They clearly justify the roundtable discussion of the program and of Saudi society that will follow the Monday broadcast.
Indeed, the debate about this program could usefully extend to the larger question of how public television sets its journalistic agenda. How do underwriting pressures -- governmental and corporate -- influence the choice of documentary subjects? How can PBS be insulated from this kind of uproar? And how should its responsibility be judged? Under no circumstances, however, should these difficult questions be confused with diplomatic expediency.
"Protector of the Constitution" [Op-Ed/Editorial]
The New York Times
May 10, 1980
The Hon. Warren M. Christopher
Department of State
Dear Mr. Secretary:
It was no great surprise that Mobil would take out an ad to express dismay about the forthcoming PBS broadcast of "Death of a Princess." Mobil enjoys the benefits of the Constitution of the United States, but it has no particular duty to protect that Constitution. Mobil is, after all, a corporation, not the Government. But we frankly grimaced when you made public a letter to PBS expressing your views about the same program, which concerns the execution in 1977 of a Saudi princess for adultery.
As you conceded, the State Department has no power to censor either the press or television. It ought to be obvious to any high school student that the Constitution forbids such meddling. Why then did you send the letter? It reads to us like one of those "cc" missives, written primarily for their effect on the person to whom one sends a carbon copy. The "cc" in this case, obviously, was the Government of Saudi Arabia. "See," your letter says to them, "even though the Constitution does not allow Government censorship, of fact or fiction, we diplomats are fine fellows who will try to bend even our most sacred principles on your behalf."
But in this accommodating climate, which ranking American official is left to defend the Constitution? Not the President, not the Acting Secretary of State, not even any of their subordinates. The person on whom the United States is left to depend as protector of the Constitution is a man named Lawrence Grossman. And he is not a government official at all; he is president of PBS.
Your background, Mr. Secretary, makes it inconceivable that you are ignorant of the commands of the Constitution and the rich history of constitutional law that surrounds it. How could you be, having once served as a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Douglas and later as Deputy Attorney General of the United States? It is thus equally inconceivable that you could have willingly sent such a letter to Mr. Grossman. So it must have been on orders.
Who gives orders to the Secretary of State? We're not sure, but we have a suspicion. We think it might be a fellow who once raised his hand and said he would "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." The same fellow who put the sign on his desk that reads, "The Buck Stops Here."
cc: Mr. Lawrence K. Grossman
home | introduction | join the discussion | talk with antony thomas | reflecting 25 years later | interviews
FRONTLINE series homepage | wgbh | pbsi
posted april 19, 2005
FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
top photo copyright ©2005 corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014
WGBH educational foundation