There were a dozen true stories; no facts. There was, certainly, a princess, a public execution. Beyond that were only hints, rumors, mystery, evasion and 1,400 years of tradition and oil. In the end, there was also an obsessed traveler on a journey through the "private center of the Arab world."
The traveler was Antony Thomas -- or Christopher Ryder, if you like. They are the same. Ryder is the fictionalized version of Thomas in his controversial docudrama, "Death of a Princess," to be aired on PBS next week. It is the story of a Saudi Arabian princess executed for adultery, along with her commoner lover, and it contains scenes and nuances that have created an international furor.
After it was broadcast on British TV on April 9, the Saudis expressed outrage, the British sent regrets, and there followed rumors of trade bans and oil embargoes and eventually the expulsions of the British ambassador from Saudi Arabia. The incident was fed on and fueled by Fleet Street in its most voracious mood.
Despite the Saudi protests, the two-hour film was shown in the Netherlands as well. The state-owned Norwegian radio and television company, NRK, decided to buy it after its agents saw the film in Cannes. And PBS officials reaffirmed their intention to air "Death of a Princess." (The film is part of the "World" series produced by WGBH, the public station in Boston, and was co-produced with ATV in England.)
As for the film's artistic merits, which seem to have gotten lost in the flurry of charges and countercharges, the London Times praised its "uncanny momentum and sinister but fascinating visions" and called it "beautifully photographed and convincing."
Of the growing controversy, Thomas says, "I'm very distressed, but it does not alter my faith in the film." Says co-producer David Fanning of WGBH: "Diplomacy should be left to the diplomats."
Antony Thomas, 39, is sitting in his office on London's Portman Square, working his way through a stream of reporters who have come to interview him. He seems bemused, weary. A muscle twitches in his cheek. A classically handsome man in a worn tweed jacket, he deals with the press with imperturbable patience and occasional bursts of merry, ironic humor. As one energetic fellow packs up his steno pad, Thomas asks, "Do you think he really saw the film?"
The reporters keep pressing him about "what really happened." He is accused of having defamed Islam in the most controversial scene, involving a desert road where Saudi princesses go to pick up men. Thomas rejects the accusation, and there is pain in his voice as he does so. His sympathy with the Arab world is clear, a passion for the East evident in his words.
He speaks with a gentle voice, and with no hint of the accent of South Africa, where he was born. Educated at Cambridge, he began life professionally at 21, making films for the South African Ministry of Information. But after his initial contacts with South African blacks in Soweto, he refused to make any more propaganda films. "i stumbled on for another five years," he says. "I was never actually banned but I was told my work was subversive." In 1967, he moved to England.
There he continued writing, directing and producing documentaries -- among them "The Search for Sandra Lang," "Holy Growth" and "The Good, the Bad and the Indifferent," all shown on PBS. Eventually he returned to his homeland to make the award-winning trilogy, "The South African Experience." "It was a kind of final confrontation with my past," he says quietly, lighting another cigarette.
His present confrontation, however, is with the press.
"Have you any right to reproduce false stories?" one reporter asks him. "Aren't you morally bound to reject stories that don't check out?" queries another.
"But this is actually what happened to me as an investigator," Thomas explains. The film, he says, is the story of his search for the truth. The dialogue is precisely based on interviews Thomas conducted in the summer and autumn of 1978. The identities of his witnesses have been fictionalized, each of them made into a dramatic character to protect the source. The medium has become the message.
His story begins at a London dinner party where Christopher Ryder, Thomas' fictional persona, first hears the story of Princess Mishaal and her lover, as Antony Thomas did in real life. The party is held in a lavish Park Lane flat, with well-fed Arab men smoking cigars and bejeweled Arab women laughing and chatting. The women are unveiled; this is London. The host, Saeed Badra, a Saudi royal intimate, tells his version of the story, which Ryder believes -- just as Antony Thomas did.
In this, the first version of the story, the princess is spoiled, strongwilled. Married by arrangement at 17 to a royal cousin, but with the marriage never consummated, she goes off to university in Beirut. There she forms, in Thomas' words, "an intense relationship with a Saudi boy, and makes a mutually conscious decision to go home and live that relationship openly, to use their love to challenge the society." In spite of the king's and her grandfather's efforts to save her, she refuses hypocrisy and condemns herself and her lover by her own mouth. By the tenents of his religion, the king is forced to condemn both of them to death.
Thomas admits "an attraction to self-sacrifice for a cause." His character, Ryder, sets out to find the facts that will let him make a documentary of her life, the forces that shaped her. He goes to the grim, working-class streets of Leeds, where he meets a British laborer who claims to have photographed the execution. He goes to a London flat, where a coy German nanny claims to have worked for the girl's family, claims the girl was stoned to death.
Then Beirut, a dead city. Shells going off; lights going out. Ryder is convinced he will meet someone who actually knew the girl at university. But he finds instead that she was never a student at all.
"Beirut saw a complete debunking of the idea the girl was ever at university," Thomas says. "But I didn't feel you had to go to university to defy your own society." In Beirut there are also careful evasions, polite warnings. "I couldn't get at what people were trying to hide," he says. "Everyone in that story behaved with such dignity in an impossible situation -- the girl, the king, the grandfather. sIt seemed to me a most noble story."
The next stop is Saudi Arabia, a country of contrasts: veiled women, barefaced French models, barefoot Yemeni water carriers, high-rise hotels. Finally Ryder meets the emira, a member of the Saudi aristocracy, who knew the princess.
The emira tells Ryder the story he eventually comes to accept above the others: The girl was no revolutionary, merely a "poor silly child," a girl caught out on an escapade, who saw a boy playing a guitar on television and arranged to meet him. It was a pathetic affair, three weeks from start to finish. They were caught.
There was no trial, Ryder learns. The girl was shot in a parking lot while the boy watched. He was beheaded.
"it was total disillusionmet," Antony Thomas says. "I saw the last shreds of the old story collapsing. The idea the girl had ever risked her life for her ideals went. I was inclined to abandon the whole thing." But, re-reading his transcripts, he realized that he had been on an important journey, one he could reproduce just as he had experienced it.
When Thomas made his decision to tell the story of his journey, an Arab friend, sensing trouble ahead, asked him -- "and these were his very words," says Thomas -- "'Do you have any idea of their concept of vengeance?'"
It was the scene in the desert that ignited the Saudis' outrage. In the film, the scene is described by the emira:
"There is a road in the desert. Women go there to look men over. Every evening about 5 o'clock. If it works, it works, and if it doesn't they just move on. If they find a man attractive, they write down his number and tell the chauffeur to make contact." As she talks, the film shows veiled women in cars, men in cars, a desert road.
"The whole, conversation centered on that scene," Thomas says, referring to a meeting with highly placed Saudi representatives a few days earlier. "They didn't say they wanted to stop the film, it wasn't a question of truth or untruth, only that they felt the scene was dishonoring them."
The meeting came after a week of negotiations begun when the Saudis, seeing news reports of the film, asked for and were granted a screening on April 3. The Saudi foreign minister expressed outrage to the British charge d'affaires in Jidda; the British ambassador, recalled from holiday in France, was sent on April 5 -- Holy Saturday -- to Jidda bearing Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington's deepest "regrets" for any offense given.
"Of course, he's entitled to regret just as I'm entitled to make this film. He hasn't apologized for dishonest journalism. In his position, involved in delicate trade negotiations, he must regret. Don't you think so?" iAntony Thomas says.
The film was duly broadcast over ITV, the commercial network, the following Wednesday. On Thursday morning, The Daily Mail, in an exclusive, reported: "Saudi Arabia Threatens Oil Embargo, Trade Bans." By noon, in The Evening Standard, it was "King Offers Five Million to Buy Silence." Other headlines featured attacks on Carrington, on Thomas, on "The Cheek of Araby"; and there were, too, the inevitable spinoffs on "Life in a Harem."
"Haven't they anything else to write about?" Thomas asks a little wistfully as two more reporters, unsmiling men from The Sunday Times wearing suits a little too big and an air of grim importance, depart.
"I couldn't make out what they were going on about, could you? Look, we are reflecting all the ideas, all the red herrings. I was only trying to reproduce myself as an investigator. It's just being flogged and flogged to death," Thomas says, gratefully sipping whiskey someone has brought from a pub. "And I'm nearly a dead horse myself. When will it all end?"
He stops, reflects. "Yes," he says quietly. "Yes, I think I would do it again. It's the most honest film I've ever made."