Apr 04 2005

Death of a Princess

Tonight Anita and I watched “Death of a Princess”; a 1980’s docudrama about a real 1970’s incident aired on Frontline.

It was fascinating. This twenty-year-old ‘fakeumentary’ was apparently the most controversial film in the history of public television. Writer/Director Antony Thomas had to make it the way he did because nearly all of his actual sources refused to talk on the record, or even be named, for fear of persecution. And the basic story itself was dramatic: A Saudi princess executed in a public square along with her lover for the crime of adultery. Convicted, according to some, by her own words as a desperate way of also speaking out against her misogynistic culture!

A good beginning, but the drama grows. As we watch through the eyes of a journalist trying to get to the bottom of things (played by Christopher Ryder) we hear other stories, wild and crazy stories. Conspiracy theories and conflicting statements of fact. And slowly we begin to see an incredibly tangled fabric of myth and reality where each person telling the story has attached their own meaning to the bare facts in order to support what they believe, or want to believe.

Finally the journalist pierces the veil and learns both the reality of the seraglio and the reality of the princess. And what we learn with him is both profound in its illumination of Saudi culture and absolutely mundane.

What we learn is that the princess is just a nineteen year old girl who has taken a lover outside her own class. One who didn’t understand ‘how things are done’ and took the affair too seriously, as does she. They decide to run off together but, being feckless children, they are caught. Only there is no justice to follow for good or ill, they never go before an Islamic court and she never says any of the brave things attributed to her. Instead her own grandfather, elder brother to the Saudi king, has them executed on his own say-so.

So, in the end the journalist is back in London talking to an expatriate Saudi friend; pouring out his frustration at the time spent in blind alleys between edifices of towering myth when the truth was so sad, and so small. His friend then makes an observation — one that sums up the whole story — that this is the real difference between the European and Islamic cultures: Where one tends to look at facts, at cause and effect, the other looks for meaning and myth and always finds it.

And I think this is true. Certainly we in the West have our conspiracy theorists and our myth-makers who prefer a fiction that sounds right to cold facts which do not. But the best of us prefer to keep fact and myth separate. While the best of them not only see truth as a malleable thing, they believe we lie about our attachment to the ‘real’ truth; thus adding to the gulf between us…

I highly recommend “Death of a Princess” if it airs on a PBS station near you.