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Fate of an Arabian princess: a 'docu-drama'

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 ("Death of a Princess," PBS, Monday, 8-10 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats).

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 conve 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.

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"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 truch 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 Muslin 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 does it matter? What matters is that a whole society is being torn apart as Muslims -- women and men -- learn superficial Western ways, adapt their beliefs and actions to them, and are then forced to return to the conservative precepts of their traditional religion and family and state.How they find personal solutions to a complex series of moral dilemmas is what "Death of Princess" is all about.

Protests from Saudi Arabia seem not to concern themselves with the basic facts of the execution or the moral dilemma posed by tradition vs. "modern progress." Instead they are aimed mainly at one anonymoous princess's tale of the method by which love-hungry young upperclass women take to a desert road in their chauffeur-driven limousines, eye male Arabs in their own cars, and then arrange assignations through their chauffeurs.

"Princess" poses the problem of women in such a society, but it also shows the problems of men who seemingly thrive in hypocritical private lives totally at variance with their professed beliefs, lives which allow them to desert wives easily while still legally retaining control over their spouses. It is the oft-told tale of a nation, a religion, a people in transition. It is a tale which, if wholly true, should be told.

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.

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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).

This is a problem which television -- as well as other media such as book publishing, movies, and theater -- must come to grips with sooner or later.The Saudis have protested to the British, where this ATV-WGBH (Boston) co-production originated (shot on location in London, Egypt, and Lebanon) and are now protesting to the US.

But this is only one minor part of a problem that extends beyond First Amendment, government-broadcasting separation arguments. The major problem is that of TV's responsibility to separate fact from fiction when it presents complex concepts to audiences that are either gullible or tend to be lulled into believing that what they see portrayed on the tube is accurate and responsible, carrying with it a stamp of believability. Even if audiences are foreward, as in the old case of the Orson Welles radio production of "The War of the Worlds" which panicked a good part of the nation, the problem still exists.

"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. Jerusalem

On the same evening -- Monday -- PBS is also presenting a documentary about the Middle East which creates no such problem for viewers. "Divided City: Jerusalem" (PBS), Monday, 10-11 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats) obviously started out as the story of the Christian/Muslim/Jewish divisions within this ancient city but ended up as a fascinating study of the difference between Israeli and Jordanian television.

Besides fabulous shots of the holy city itself, there are revealing excerpts from native programming. Seemingly, the Israelis revel in broad political satire while the Arabs favor entertaining local soap operas. Both sides enjoy mediocre mindless sitcoms from England and the US.

Jordanian TV carries a news program in Hebrew while Israel carries a news program in Arabic. Just about the only bilingual program is a cooking show in Israel which lists the ingredients in both Hebrew and Arabic. Maybe the way to a man's peace is through his stomach.

Seriously, though, "Divided City" (a BBC-WNEt co-production) is an easy learning experience.

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