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Death of a Princess [site homepage]
homediscussionantony thomas25 years laterinterviews
photo of the film
photo of the film
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introduction: april 19, 2005

In the spring of 1980, America was at a dramatic crossroads in the Middle East: President Carter's attempt to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran had just ended in failure, oil prices were rising steadily, and the U.S. economy was in shambles. At that moment, the PBS series WORLD -- the precursor to FRONTLINE® -- broadcast perhaps the most controversial film in the history of public television.

Amid a clamor of political uproar and international front-page headlines, "Death of a Princess" told the true story of a young Saudi princess and her lover who had been publicly executed for adultery. The broadcast ignited protests from both the Saudi Arabian and U.S. governments and big oil companies.

FRONTLINE marks the 25th anniversary of this defining moment for public television with an expanded re-issue of "Death of a Princess." The film is a docu-drama, based on transcripts from interviews conducted by reporter/filmmaker Antony Thomas on his journey through the Arab world in search of the truth and the meaning of the public execution of Saudi Princess Misha'al. The original film is accompanied by a new examination of the controversy surrounding the original broadcast and an analysis of the politics behind the protests against the film and of what the film reveals about the struggles of Arab women.

When "Death of a Princess" was first broadcast in Great Britain in April 1980, the Saudi government's reaction to the film touched off a diplomatic firestorm that reportedly included threats to impose sanctions on British business interests in Saudi Arabia and to break formal ties with the United Kingdom. Amid the furor, the British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia was sent home.

The Saudis also protested the U.S. broadcast in May 1980. Mobil Oil, which had extensive interests in Saudi Arabia and was also a significant PBS funder, ran ads criticizing the film in The New York Times and other newspapers. Members of Congress concerned about oil supplies and U.S.- Saudi relations spoke out against the broadcast, while others supported PBS's right to broadcast the film. Acting Secretary of State Warren Christopher sent a letter to PBS president Larry Grossman relaying the concerns.

"We plan to schedule the program," Grossman said in response to the pressures. "We have great faith in the program. It's a program of integrity, it was made responsibly, and we intend to broadcast it."

"It was a bald question, 'Would the journalistic enterprise be defended against the powerful political and economic opposition?'" recalls Peter McGhee, then the program manager for public affairs at WGBH, which produced "Death of Princess." "And in the end we prevailed. It put a chock behind the back wheel of public television."

Though reporting of the 1977 executions was largely suppressed in Arab countries, the story of "the princess who died for love" traveled far and wide by word-of-mouth. But as reporter Antony Thomas conducted his investigation in London, Paris, Beirut, Riyadh, and Jeddah, almost all of those he interviewed off-the-record declined to appear on camera.

"And so we made this crucial decision to dramatize the interviews," says co-writer and executive producer David Fanning. "That way, we would be able to hide or to mask the people's identities to protect them. But we were also able to preserve the journalistic integrity of the investigation."

Although the identities of most of the interviewees were disguised, the dialogue spoken by the actors in the film was based on the transcripts of the interviews with the film's sources.

"I heard literally dozens of contradictory reports," says Antony Thomas, who co-wrote the screenplay and directed the film of his journey through the Arab world. "And though some brought me further from the truth about the executions, each revealed a truth about the storyteller. It seemed that they were not talking only about the Princess, but about themselves and their own place in the Arab world."

One of the few characters in the film whose identity was not changed was Violet Costandi, a Palestinian wife and mother living in Beirut. "As a Palestinian, when I was deprived of all these things, of my homeland, of everything that belonged to me, I had the feeling of revolt," says Costandi. "I feel I love this girl. I think she was a free soul."

Others were more practical about the executions. "She committed a very grave sin against Islam," says the owner of a fashionable boutique in Saudi Arabia. "He couldn't let her get away with this. All sorts of silly girls would have followed. She had to be sacrificed."

Still others saw her as a revolutionary supporting a revival of democracy and women's rights in the Muslim world. "By her actions she was saying, 'Look at this blasphemy. Look what is being done to our women,'" says a Saudi school teacher. "A woman is nobody's property in Islam. There is no veil in Islam."

But throughout the Rashomon-like retelling of the Princess's story, one constant idea emerges -- the Princess was a symbol of a culture pulled between its traditions and the modern world.

"It's the story of 200 million people. The whole Arab predicament," says one Arab source. "How much of our past must we abandon? How much of your present is worth imitating?"

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posted april 19, 2005

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