In ‘The Princess,’ a documentary on Diana flips the focus

This image released by HBO Max shows promotional art for the film "The princess," a documentary premiered on August 13th.  (HBO Max via AP)
This image released by HBO Max shows promotional art for the film "The princess," a documentary premiered on August 13th.  (HBO Max via AP)
This image released by HBO Max shows promotional art for the film "The princess," a documentary premiered on August 13th.  (HBO Max via AP)

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This image released by HBO Max shows promotional art for the film “The Princess,” a documentary that premieres August 13. (HBO Max via AP)

1 of 3

This image released by HBO Max shows promotional art for the film “The Princess,” a documentary that premieres August 13. (HBO Max via AP)

The last thing the world needs, you might think, is another documentary about Princess Diana.

It’s a fair thought considering her life and impact are still media fodder almost 25 years after her death. Whether it’s a magazine cover or a book claiming to have new revelations, or just a picture of Kristen Stewart in a replica of her wedding dress for the movie “Spencer” or Elizabeth Debicki in “Revenge Dress” for the series “The Crown,” culture continues to have an insatiable appetite for all things Diana.

And yet documentary filmmaker Ed Perkins managed to find a novel approach: by turning the lens back on us.

“The obvious truth is that Diana’s story is probably one of the most told and retold stories of the last 30 years,” Perkins said in an interview this week. “We only felt that it was worth adding to this conversation if we really felt we could offer a fresh perspective.”

” The princess ‘ has no talking heads and no traditional narrator. Instead, it tells the story of her public life using only archive footage from newscasts, talk shows, and radio programs. It begins from when her earliest moments were followed by cameras at the news of her royal courtship to the aftermath of her death in 1997. It premieres on HBO Saturday at 8 p.m. Eastern and is available to stream on HBO Max .

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Perkins never met Diana. He was 11 when she died and remembers his mother waking him up with tears in his eyes. For the next week, before their funeral, they sat in front of the television like much of the world. He recalled feeling at the time just confused and taken aback by what he said was a “very un-British outpouring of sorrow”.

This was someone most people only knew from the media, he thought. Why did they act like they lost a mother or a sister? Why had millions cheered their marriage? Why did everyone “dissect everything she did, everything she said, everything she wore” for 17 years?

“There’s something about her story that has always felt oddly personal to me,” he said. “I think millions of people around the world have a similar relationship. Something about her or what she represented got under the skin of a lot of people and became part of the collective consciousness or understanding of who we were.”

They were questions that lingered over the years. And as the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns began, he and his archives team decided to try to answer why. As you can imagine, the archive was huge for one of the most photographed people in history. For six months, Perkins watched footage eight to 12 hours a day, trying to find moments that spoke to him (and kept him awake).

“It was often about finding subtext and body language,” he said. “Diana is almost like a silent movie star. She doesn’t speak that much in public throughout her public life. And yet I think she was incredibly adept, almost masterful, at publicly projecting her own very public/private story and trying to tell us how we should feel, how she felt.

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He also used the many hours of public comment over the phone, aired on British radio shows over the years, to act as a sort of Greek chorus.

The film, which caused a buzz at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, seeks to take audiences on an emotional and intellectual journey unfolding in the present. For Perkins, it’s not just a historical document either: it’s an origin story for some things that are happening today.

“I want the film to allow us to put the camera back on all of us and force us to ask some tough questions about our relationship, yes with Diana, but maybe more broadly about our relationship with the royal family and more generally about what is our relationship with celebrities,” Perkins said. “Then the most important and interesting – but perhaps most difficult – thing we can talk about in relation to this story is what was our role in this story? What was our complicity in this tragic story?”

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Follow AP film writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr

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