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Antony Thomas is the reporter and director of "Death of a Princess." In this interview, he talks about the reasons he turned his reporting into a docu-drama, the multiple sourcing that he had for it, the film's most controversial scenes and some of the pressures put on him and on others to prevent its broadcast. And, he discusses what he came to learn about the young princess herself and the basic facts behind her execution. This interview was conducted on March 21, 2005.

It surprises me how little has changed in 25 years. Think of some of the other territories in the world you could make a film in back then and imagine what's happened in those years -- anywhere in Eastern Europe to start with. The static nature of this is what surprises me and it's the static nature of this that I think is so worrying, offensive, to many Arabs.

So what got you into the story?

Well, in the late '70s, this story hit the headlines of a Saudi princess who'd been publicly executed. And it hit the headlines because a British construction worker had actually photographed it with a little Instamatic camera. ...

And some months later, I was at a dinner party where a very prominent Saudi was present. He said, "Let me tell you the true story of that princess." And he told the story exactly as I tell it in the film. He told the story which gave dignity to all parties in this. And I have many contacts in the Arab world, great affection for the Arab world.

So in the beginning, you set out to make it as a drama?

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.

I had a problem, because everyone I spoke to was interviewed in complete confidence, and how do I tell this story? So I decided to go right back to first principles and tell it as a story of an investigator, a man I call Christopher Ryder, traveling through the Arab world to try to get to the truth of the princess and having experiences exactly based on the interviews that I'd had.

But to protect people, of course I had to give them different backgrounds, different occupations and sometimes even different settings -- except for the construction worker, who lived safely in England, there was no attempt to disguise his personality, and a nanny to one of the princess's relatives who knew the princess well, and she was back in England, and she'd gone public. But the rest I had to protect.

Why not do this as a normal documentary?

Because I couldn't have a single interview in it. There was not one person I spoke to, with the exception of a Palestinian family I know very well, who would agree to appear in this film. So it was absolutely understood that "Everything I'm telling you now, Antony, is in confidence. You will never refer to me; you will never expose me, will you?" You couldn't make a documentary. It was impossible. You'd have a whole array of people with their voices distorted and bags on their heads, and that wouldn't make a very good film.

You saw a narrative way through the story?

Yeah. What's emerged for me very clearly, and for [FRONTLINE executive producer] David [Fanning], who was working with me on this, is that we should take this journey through the Arab world, have all these impressions that add up to a whole. And as each component of that girl's life falls into place, [there's] the truth of it as opposed to the fantasy. And when we feel secure in that, then we do that as a dramatized sequence.

So you're gradually building up to a picture of what it really was. You go through all these different versions, but you are trying to direct the viewer towards the actual truth of the story.

You said that people in the Arab world really connected to this story, a lot of personal feelings. Why did it have such power?

I'll give you an example. This is not in the film because it's terribly personal. One of the people I spoke to about the princess' story, it was a woman from Jordan who was a university lecturer. And we talked about that story, and it sparked something in her. And for six hours, she talked about her childhood as a girl in Jordan, experiences she'd had with a maid who had set fire to herself when she was pregnant because there was no way to deal with that.

Josephine and I talked for six hours. She got very, very emotional. And that same afternoon, I traveled to Cairo, [Egypt]. When I arrived, there was a telegram from her husband, who said that she'd committed suicide. Now, there was a lot of backstory to that -- her marriage was in trouble -- but I often wonder whether all that emotional stirring that happened as we talked about the princess wasn't in some small, eventful way a contributing factor to her decision she took to take her life.

It reached into people, this story, in the Arab world. And it's a very vivid part of the world. These myths and stories are very alive. There's a great deal of word-of-mouth. And we're kind of jaded by comparison. But there these stories have such a resonance. And it had a resonance.

It touched on what, some unspoken truth?

This story, which generally went around as a girl who willingly accepted to die rather than compromise over a love she felt for a boy, that touched buttons. It's a crucifixion story. It has that same sort of resonance. And that stirred things in people. And that was what the film was about, was about that stirring. At the same time, it was trying to find the girl herself. Who was she?

How much did you learn about the girl herself?

A lot. And all the information that I originally had was untrue. There was another truth there. She was not educated. She was impetuous. And the manner of her relationship and the manner of her death didn't have these sort of noble trappings that people had invested in it.

But it was still, as I think somebody says in the final scene of the film, that "She acted. Don't take that away from her." So I learned about the life she really lived and the kind of girl she was. Obviously I don't know her well, didn't know her well, but I got much nearer to the truth than when we started on this exercise.

Let me ask you about some of the scenes that were particularly controversial, to which Saudis reacted strongly. One is the scene in the desert. ...What did you base that on?

That's based on an account from somebody I have every reason to trust.

Describe the scene.

There's a scene in the desert. And one of our informers is telling us about how women pick up men because of the veil, because a woman is not seen. And the informant is somebody I trust completely, and that scene is based on her description.

Was it something that happened once or something that happened frequently?

She implied it happens frequently.

From a skeptical point of view, how should the viewer trust that source?

Very good question: How should we trust any source in this program? I sort of have reason to believe very strongly in my judgment. I can't talk very much about this because if I were to reveal this person's identity, it would make some sense in what I'm saying. But I have no reason to doubt that that is a true description.

Another point of controversy is the role of the grandfather. Describe the controversy and your sourcing on that, as best you can.

Well, that's multiple sources. The original story was based on the idea that there was a trial -- the full shari'a [Islamic law] proceedings went ahead -- and that the princess, in effect, elected to die. She proclaimed that she had committed adultery three times. And the original story went on to describe how the king interceded and so on and so forth.

Well, let's put it this way: I visited the courts. I met Islamic lawyers who were acting there in the country and who knew about the court proceedings, and apart from that, many, many people who insisted that there [was] no trial at all.

So what actually happened?

It's quite clear what happened. This is a decision made by her grandfather and not a decision that the king was prepared to quarrel with. It was a matter of defending the grandfather's honor. And the outrage, as far as he was concerned, was this sad attempt the princess had made to fake a drowning, which then stimulated all kinds of search by helicopters and so on to find her.

In other words, a lot of attention was brought to the case in the country. And then she was arrested in a very public place, the airport. For a member of a family like that, for one of their own children or grandchildren to behave like that publicly is an assault on that person's honor. This is about honor. It wasn't about Islamic law.

The story of whether or not there was a trial -- you have multiple sources on that?

I have multiple sources. I've been to the courtrooms where it would have taken place. It wasn't a trial. She wasn't even executed in the Square of Justice. She was just executed in a car park. I've witnessed executions in Saudi Arabia, I'm afraid. They're always done in a special square. This wasn't even done there. It wasn't done with an official executioner, not that that would make it any worse or any better. But this was not following the process of any law. ...

When you're making a docu-drama, how do you make the judgment that "OK, I can go with this and portray it as" -- ? Because the viewer sees it as fact and doesn't know the sourcing. What's the calculus that goes on in your mind when you go ahead with this scene?

Like all documentaries we make where we trust people to be witnesses to certain events, maybe we get it wrong occasionally, but I don't think very often. ... I hope this isn't arrogant, but I think when I know the person very well, and know the circumstances in which they live and where they were, and see all that in the context of a full interview, I think I have a right to judge when it's truthful and when it's a lie, as we do with all our documentaries.

Twenty-five years later, your sources would still be reluctant to come forward?

Oh, absolutely, absolutely, because it's very misrepresented. It's misrepresented by [the] Saudi elite as an attack on Islam. It isn't an attack on Islam. It's very respectful of Islam. ...

Why did the Saudis react so strongly?

Because it questions their function as the guardians of the holy places of Islam. It's not in any way, as I said, an attack on Islam. It has lots of questions to raise about the Saudi royal family and its relationship with the West.

What was their reaction?

They very much didn't want it to be shown.

How did they make those views known?

Well, they put a lot of pressure on people. And I won't say more than that. A lot of pressure was put on.

On you personally?

Less on me. There were approaches made for me to say that the film was a mistake and I should never have made it, and financial rewards put forward. And of course, whatever -- it's a bit silly.

What about the British government?

Well, the British government, yes, a lot of pressure was put on. The British government worked very hard to explain that this television station is not a government television station and so on. A lot of pressure was put on.

Describe the public controversy.

Oh, hugely. I mean, whole front pages devoted to this thing. It went in two waves. The first wave was very supportive of the film and taking quite a racist attitude: "Who are these people to tell us about democracy and justice?"

And then the Saudi sneezed and expelled the [British] ambassador and so forth, and then the whole tone changed. Now it was all about documentary truth and insult to another culture. It was actually shocking, the way the press had taken one position to [the] extreme with ghastly racist cartoons -- I remember some of them -- and then they just got a little knock like that, and they all shot the other way. So you have to sort of sit firmly in situations like that.

[Was there pressure put on the Arab actors?]

Again, a lot. What happened was, I took the film to Cairo about two months before it was broadcast. I didn't know how it would be received. I had no idea. And I had a showing for the minister of culture, who had given me permission to film there, and all the actors, and it was a very, very emotional screening. I mean, I was there. I told them with purpose, "Anyone who's worried about their appearance in this film, they won't have a credit," and so forth.

We had the screening. It was very emotional. And [the minister of culture] got up and hugged me and said their only shame is that an Arab didn't make this film, and so on and so forth. The minister was delighted.

And then this thing hit the fan. And my friend Salah Jaheen, who's since passed away, who collaborated closely on the film, he phoned me one day. He said, "Antony, they're putting pressure on the actors."

I said: "Well, look, tell them to tell any story they like. Tell them that they never saw the script; they've never seen the film. All they saw was their one scene. I give them absolute free rein to do that." And everybody but one or two did that. But who am I to say? I'm safe here; they're not safe out there.

Do have any idea what kind of pressure [it was] that was put on the actors?

Oh, yes. It was pressure that those who were acting in television, that they should be dropped by television companies, particularly those working for companies in the Gulf and so on. In other words, their careers would just be snuffed out. As far I know, no one was threatened with a bullet in the head or anything like that, but they were threatened with "End of your career, mate." And that's pretty serious.

What did you learn about Saudi Arabia in the course of making this?

Of course I'd been in touch with Saudi [Arabia] for quite many years before. But I did learn a lot through this experience as well, and about the royal family, about its position within the kingdom -- and this is still a very relevant theme today, which is the sort of unholy alliance between the royal family and the Wahhabist clergymen, which has had such an effect in changing the character of Islam globally. I learned a lot about their country. ...

There's a musing in the film about the "Arab dilemma." What is that? Why did you put that in?

Well, it's expressed very strongly right in the beginning: How much of our past should we amend, and how much of your present is worth imitating? And I think that that's still very relevant today. But we've moved on since 1980, and the Middle East has become much more volatile and much more violent because we don't seem to learn any of the lessons. ...

Does that dilemma, in your opinion, still exist?

Oh, yes. And the future is a huge question mark in the Arab world. Let's face it. [There are] many, many issues that deeply concern Arabs. Here they are on the southern side of the Mediterranean, and there was no reason why, post-Second World War, with their oil wealth, that the countries of the southern side of the Mediterranean shouldn't be every bit as prosperous [as], if not more than, the countries of the northern seaboard of the Mediterranean. Why hasn't it happened? It's a question that's asked a lot.

A lot of the answers are simplistic, but this is an ancient civilization which is frustrated, which doesn't understand why it's not entered into the 20th, 21st century in a way that would benefit its people. All kinds of questions are being asked. The whole place is in turmoil.

What's it been like coming back to the film now, 25 years later?

I was surprised at how little had changed. I saw the film for the first time in 25 years just after Christmas. What hits you in the face, of course, was the Lebanese war was over. That was the one thing that had changed. Then we get the recent assassination [of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri], and you feel all the tremors all over again. The Palestinians are exactly in the same situation.

It surprises me how little has changed in 25 years. Think of some of the other territories in the world you could make a film in 25 years ago, and now just imagine what's happened in those years -- anywhere in Eastern Europe, to start with. The static nature of this is what surprises me, and it's the static nature of this that I think is so worrying and offensive to many Arabs.

This particular story, the story of the princess, is that still known in Saudi society?

I would doubt it. I would doubt it now. I think its moment has passed. But it did attract a lot of attention just immediately at the time. But so much else has happened since. ...

[Did you expect the reaction the film received?]

No. Absolutely not. ... It's hard to judge how these things will go. But as I told you earlier, I had a screening in Egypt. One of the people present who saw it was the minister [of culture], and when we had drinks or dinner -- I can't remember -- afterwards, and we were discussing it, I said to him, "Are you afraid of the Saudi reaction?" And he said, "Mr. Thomas, the Saudis are much too sophisticated to publicize your film by making a fuss." He was absolutely calm like that.

I remember sending this wonderfully stupid message to my bosses back here saying: ... "The minister said so-and-so. I trust his judgment on this." Well, how wrong we were. You can never tell which way the cat's going to jump.

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posted april 19, 2005

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