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Frontline: Death of a Princess

Antony Thomas
Producer, Director and Co-writer
Wednesday, April 20, 2005; 11:00 AM

Twenty-five years after the initial broadcast of perhaps the most controversial program in the history of public television, FRONTLINE re-issued "Death of a Princess." The 1980 docudrama recounting the public execution of a young Saudi Arabian princess and her lover for adultery triggered vehement protests from the Saudi government and an international uproar when it was first broadcast in the U.S. and Britain. The film, which re-creates journalist Antony Thomas's journey through the Arab world to investigate the executions, is a portrait of the constricted lives of Arab women and a Rashomon-like exploration of the elusiveness of journalistic truth. This special presentation will feature new interviews with the filmmakers, an inside view of the controversies surrounding the film, and an analysis of how the lives of Arab women have, and have not, changed.

Find out more about the documentary: "Death of a Princess", which aired on Tuesday, April 19, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings). Producer Antony Thomas was online Wednesday, April 20, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the report.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Chicago, Ill.: Who were the actors for the reenactment? They were wonderful and natural.

Where were the exteriors shot? On location? Cairo?

Do you have any idea why some of your sources talked about the princess studying in Beirut? Was this somehow more acceptable to them than her traveling in Paris or London?

Antony Thomas: All the actors except the investigator, the nanny and the construction worker were from the Arab world. Most of the filming took place in Egypt, although I did film certain establishing shots in Saudi Arabia.


Arlington Heights, Ill.: The movie does a great job in depicting the oppression of the Saudi women. It also presents the difference between the tribal values and the religious values. It highlights the essential need for reform. Nevertheless, I wonder why this great movie is not well known! Why it is not being promoted more widely? I believe by promoting it and showing it, the American public will gain a different perspective about what is ailing the Saudi society!

Antony Thomas: Thank you for your very kind message. The film did get a very large audience when it was first shown, and now we have had the revival, but sadly, only in the US. The truth is that a lot of broadcasters are afraid to show it. For example, there has been no repeat in the UK, nor ever will be.


Waukesha, Wis.: Thank you for rebroadcast the story again, I was not born at the time when the sad story happened. One could wander after watching the "Death of Princess" tonight and reading very unusual, appallingly inhumane, cruelly disproportionate punishment to the crimes allegedly committed by these young Somali men on April 4 2005. Both women and non-Saudi are treated in humane in Saudi Arabia. Amnesty International put the total number of people executed in Saudi Arabia in the last four months at 51, almost two-thirds of which were foreign nationals. The Saudi regime unjustly punishes the innocent migrants for a crime committed by Saudi nationals. What do you think about the matter?

Antony Thomas: Thank you for your message. Yes, I have read the Amnesty reports, and agree with your conclusions.


Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Hello, Mr.Thomas. A lot of people die everyday worldwide and even in the Arab country and some of the reasons are bizarre and worth talking about. However, we don't talk about it. Why? Because they are ordinary citizens and it happens everyday. Why did you feel the Princess case was any important? Should a film be based on her just because she fell in love and was executed? Or just because she was of royal blood? This film seems to have made a big deal over nothing. Maybe you should consider making a movie that will not only be based on a national, significant issue but also one that will make a impact and talk about a society as a whole. Thanks a lot.

Antony Thomas: Sorry you felt that the film made a big deal out of nothing. In my opinion, the investigation into the facts surrounding the Princess's death told us a great deal about the status of Arab women generally. Indeed that was the point of the program. Sorry you missed it.


Montreal, Quebec, Canada: Do you think you have found out the truth, or just multiple versions of lies? And will we ever know what happened between Monday capture and the Friday execution?

Congratulations on a great film.

Antony Thomas: Thank you for your kind message. I am certain that the final version of events that the investigator discovered is the true version, i.e. meeting the boy in Saudi, faking a drowning to cover her tracks, and the attempt to escape disguised as a boy. But I don't think we will ever know what happened in those four days between her arrest and execution. On thing is certain, though. There was no trial.


Anonymous: What is the current law and degree of punishment for adultery? When it is stated someone is sentenced to lashes for adultery, are the lashes light or are they brutal?

Antony Thomas: According to strict Islamic law, adultery carries the death penalty.


Nashville, Tenn.: Although journalism does not address that question, but what do you think is the responsibility of the Arabic woman in dealing with the problem at hand, and what should be the responsibility of the international community?
Otherwise, well done on a powerful film.

Antony Thomas: Thank you for your kind message.

I feel women have very little opportunity to change the system from within. But these regimes are sensitive to outside opinion, and I feel we should never relax on external pressure for change.


Anonymous: How old was the princess when she was put to death? And who approved the execution? Her parents/father, I would assume?

Antony Thomas: She was 19 years old. Her grandfather ordered the execution,


Vancouver, Canada: I am planning to show Death of a Princess in the course I teach (Politics of Developing Countries) during the section on Women in the Middle East. However, I am planning to add a discussion of Shi'a and Sunni traditions of Islam in reference to women. The video is somewhat silent on the relation of Islam and women; (thus leaving a widow open for criticism from the Saudi Royal family). Any suggestion or comment on the issue of Islam and women? Or do you think the video is just not about that at all?

Antony Thomas: Thanks for your message. Sorry that you felt the program was silent on the relations between Islam and women. What I hope emerged was that the status of women was very different in the early centuries. The oppression we find in countries like Saudi Arabia has it's roots in tribal culture. I would particularly refer you to the scene between the investigator and the young teacher.


New York, N.Y.: Knowing the unequivocal consequences she would suffer upon her return, why did the Princess and her lover dare return to her homeland?

In trying to find an answer to this question myself, I'm inclined to believe she thought her example would stir social changes and inequities suffered by the Saudi/Arab women.

Thank you for having the strength and conviction to pursue such a dangerous task. Perhaps through your revelations, changes - albeit small - may have been introduced.

Antony Thomas: Thank you so much for your message.

I am afraid you misunderstood the program's conclusion. although everyone believed she had deliberately returned, the truth that we eventually discovered was that she was caught trying to escape from the country.


Washington, D.C: Were there any books written on this? If so, what were they?

Antony Thomas: There were no books written about this,


San Diego, Calif. I don't understand why the people that agreed to be interviewed insisted upon their identities not being revealed. What are they afraid may happen to themselves or their families? My understanding is that many of these people are not Saudis and they live outside of Saudi Arabia, so how is it that they are intimidated about revealing their identities. Do they fear the long arm of the Saudi royal family and their agents or do they fear that the world of Islam will shun them? Are they afraid for their personal safety or for their status in the Islamic community? I thought that this type of intimidation went on in Saddam's Iraq, but it seems to have permeated throughout the Arab world.

Antony Thomas: Intimidation is very real, I'm afraid. There wasn't a single person I interviewed in Saudi Arabia or the Lebanon who would have agreed to appear on film. To give you an idea, even the actors suffered for agreeing to appear in the film.

The story about the Princess' time at a University in the Lebanon was an invention, and an important element in the original (an very inaccurate) version of her life and death that I was given by a prominent Saudi.

Antony Thomas: Intimidation is very real, I'm afraid. There wasn't a single person I interviewed in Saudi Arabia or the Lebanon who would have agreed to appear on film. To give you an idea, even the actors suffered for agreeing to appear in the film.

The story about the Princess' time at a University in the Lebanon was an invention, and an important element in the original (and very inaccurate) version of her life and death that I was given by a prominent Saudi.


Wichita, Kan.: In your opinion, what would be a good solution to this mess? In other words, how could a person help bring changes as a citizen or nation to these unIslamic practices? I believe the film was deeply moving, and as a Muslim woman myself, it distdisturbedgreatly.

Antony Thomas: Thank you for your very kind message. It may take a very long time to sort this, but I hope we can be a little less timid about speaking out against human rights abuses in countries that are economically powerful or strategically important to us.f


Washington, D.C.: One version I read of this story was that the princess and her lover had persuaded a sheik to marry them secretly. Judging from your account that she was already married, I gather that was yet another incorrect albeit romanticized version of the story.

Thanks for the rebroadcast. I would have been too young to watch this when it came out in 1980, but it seems to still have a lot of relevance today.

Antony Thomas: Thank you so much for your message. As you say, yet another version of this story.


Montreal, Quebec, Canada: Hello. I have two questions.

Firstly, at the very end of the film, during the discussion or commentary, a Arab woman said social issues have remained in the past whereas technology and the rest of society has advanced, or advancing, in the 21st century. Have you returned to Saudi Arabia since then, and have you seen any change in the mentality?

Secondly, do you think your film had any impact at all in Saudi Arabia, or in the Arab world in general?

Thank you.

Antony Thomas: I am afraid I am not allowed into Saudi Arabia, so can't comment on the external changes over the past twenty five years -- but from all I read, there has been very little in the way of social change.


Orange County, Calif.: Antony,
Remember me, Rosemarie Buschow, the nanny, who lived two years with the Princess? I wrote the book "The Prince and I" and a lot of your material was taken from me and then turned around and used in in your pathetic film. I am glad that your film will not be shown by many others. You changed your mind and should have left it as "documentary" and not "drama document." At least then the Saudis could have taken you and the TV station to court! You are such a coward to have gone into hiding by doing that. You wanted to give me credit as script adviser, remember, and I told you, never, you did a terrible thing by misusing my material in such a way.

I live here in America now and think it is sad what you did. I was the only person who lived with the Royal Family when this happened and you used gossip to make this terrible film. No wonder that the Saudis were upset to say the least!
Rosemarie Buschow-Sauer, Yorba Linda, California

Antony Thomas: Rosemarie Buschow. Extraordinary to hear from you after all this time. But not guilty of turning anything round. Every scene featuring "the nanny" was faithfully based on the conversations we had.


Washington, D.C.: Of what do potential broadcasters of the program fear? And why do you state that the program will never be broadcast again in the U.K.?

I found program very intinterestingd informative, and the docudrama approach very effective.

Antony Thomas: They fear economic reprisals, I'm afraid.


Washington, D.C. : I missed the beginning part of the film, so apologize if this was already explained. I know that the "interviews" were re-enactments done with actors, but what about the larger scenes -- e.g., sword dance in the desert, women in shopping malls, people in the street, etc. Was any of this "real" footage?

Antony Thomas: It was a drama, and every scene in the program was a recreation.


Winnipeg, Canada: From the begbeginingwondered how the EnlEnglishmeno originally took the pictures was able to leave the country with his camera intact. I would have thought that the government would have kept a special eye on foreign workers who attended the execution?

Antony Thomas: He hid his camera, as we showed, but I agree, he was taking great risks.


Silver Spring, Md.: I'm shocked that a close relative ordered the execution. In these Arab countries, does "family unity" or "family Love" mean nothing? Is their religion so influential that it would move them to take the life of a youth, despite their love and reverence for family? I don't understand why a human has the authority to take a life!

Antony Thomas: I don't think it's fair to blame religion. The notion of vengeance and male honor has deep roots which go back to pre-Islamic times.


Upland, Calif.: To follow up on your point that the film will never again be shown in the U.K. I'm curious as to why you think that is? Do the Saudis carry that much influence over the media there?

Antony Thomas: Thankfully the Saudis do not have a huge influence over the media, but governments do. And several governments have put strong pressure on TV stations not to show this program.


Yuma, Ariz.: I was surprised when it was revealed in the move that veiling is not a true dictate of the Muslim religion, but something "created" by the Turks. If one is a true believer of Islam, why can't they see that for themselves? Veiling of women only serves to enforce the idea that they are non-persons and can be dealt with as such, without dignity or rights.

Antony Thomas: I completely agree with this point.


New York, N.Y.: I was a little confused about the Princess's family -- was her grandfather (the playboy) the older brother to the King?

Also, why do you think the Princess was singled out for execution when, as one interviewee said, adultery was so common among women of that class?

Absolutely stunning program. I've been thinking about it ever since last night. Thank you.

Antony Thomas: Thank you for your kind comments. In many societies that are sexually repressive, the unwritten rule is that virtually anything is permissible as long as it is hidden. The Princess's "crime" was drawing attention to her relationship by her sad attempt at faking a drowning.


Harrisonburg, Va.: Isn't it true that even if the princess had escaped Saudi Arabia, she would have been hunted and killed, even if she had ended up in the US? We saw an entire Middle Eastern family killed in McLean, Virginia, and no one has ever been caught for it.

Antony Thomas: We can't be sure that the Princess would have been hunted down in this country. But I agree with you. I know several other cases of women like her being killed in the country where they took refuge, and one famous case of a woman being kidnapped and taken back to her home country,


Bethesda Md.: The Administration likes to say that Arab communities will embrace democracy given the opportunity. This may be, but my fear is that Arab communities don't want to embrace the rest of the world (socially or economically) due to their religious prescriptions. I'd be interested in your reactions to this idea.

Thank you.

Antony Thomas: I don't agree with you. I sense a real hunger for freedom in many Arab societies. The tragic fact, also, is that Islam has a long history of tolerance and openness. What we are talking about is the perversion of the religion in certain parts of the world.


New York, N.Y.: Why was it so hard to get to get the truth?

So many versions of the story...

Antony Thomas: Yes. It was very hard to get to the truth, and there are still many important details one doesn't know, and it would be wrong to guess at.


Oceanside, Calif.: How do I find out more about the personal life of the Princess?

Antony Thomas: It's very difficult. I have not come across a single book that is reliable and very few articles.


Stamford, Conn.: Dear Sir: There appears to be a strong symbiotic relationship bwtbetweene S. Royals and the W. Clerics. To what extent do you think the S. Royals support the Clerics because of a deep religous faith vs. because it serves their goal of preserving power.

Moving film, by the way.

Antony Thomas: I agree. It's a Faustian pact. Don't criticise our excesses, and we'll bank roll you. The sad fact is that this money is being used to export the most extreme form of Islam to the rest of the Muslim world.


Philadelphia, Pa.: I, as most America, oppose the death penalty for adultery. Yet, when I mention this to some foreigners, they don't understand how we Americans can execute children. How would you respond to our challenging another country's attitudes when they similarly do not understand our attitudes?

Antony Thomas: A very good question, which I am going to side-step by saying that I come from a part of the world where the death penalty has been abolished long since,


Starlight, Pa.: There was a reference in your show regarding Saudi "puppet government" put into place by the U.S., which contradicted traditional Islamic treatment of women. Your updated report suggested small steps in the direction of equal rights. Are these steps supported by us today? Or are they a result from pressure within Saudi Arabia.

I thought your film was indeed timeless, and yet, ahead of it's time. It would be great if Frontline were to have an "Archival" Air slot so films like yours could be shown more often, and not just once or twice. Thank you for such a well crafted, moving report.

Antony Thomas: Thank you for your very kind comments. I'll certainly put your suggestion to the powers that be, here at WGBH.


Richardson, Tex.: Outstanding journalism, and I wish I could shake your hand and buy you lunch for a job well done!

What resources are there to see any of the pictures that were referenced in the film? The construction worker who took the pictures of the exeexecutionnd the nanny that had all of the personal photos of the princess in her album? What was the princess' name?

Antony Thomas: The construction worker's photos were published by the Daily Express in London. It was early 1978. UnfUnfortunatelydon't have my copies of the articles with me here.


Oceanside, Calif.: Since there is no book about this, how do you go about researching the history of the Princess?

Antony Thomas: I 'm afraid I don't know of any book which tells the story.


U.S. Revival: I missed the program last night. Will it air again? Is it available on video?

Antony Thomas: I'm afraid it's a one-off broadcast, and I don't know of any plans to release a video.


Antony Thomas: Good bye everyone, and thank you for your comments. I'm sorry that we were held up for so long by a power failure,

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