National Geographic channel premieres Diana: In Her Own Words tonight; E.P. tells Nonfictionfilm.com film 'has Princess Diana as the narrator herself'
The impending 20th anniversary of Princess Diana's death on August 31 has brought about a slew of documentaries commemorating her life, including one on HBO -- Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy -- produced in concert with Diana's sons, Prince William and Prince Harry.
But only one can claim to be what amounts to an autobiographical account: Nat Geo's Diana: In Her Own Words. The film, executive produced by Tom Jennings premieres on the cable channel tonight (9pm ET/8pm CT); it's drawn from interviews the princess secretly recorded as her marriage to Prince Charles was falling apart. [Note: the film is released on digital streaming platforms -- iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, and others -- today (August 15)]
"Unlike the other [films] that are out now and ones that have come before, this is the only one that I know of that has Princess Diana as the narrator herself," Jennings told Nonfictionfilm.com. "She narrates her story, her life, and there's no one else chiming in. There's no other interviews with people telling the audience what she was like. It's giving her a voice for the first time instead of having everyone else explain who she was to us."
It is her story and it is told by her... Reading it in a book or reading it in a headline -- it's just not the same as having the actual person say the words.
The Diana interviews were conducted by her longtime friend, Dr. James Colthurst, at the behest of celebrity biographer Andrew Morton, for a book he was writing about the princess. That she had willingly collaborated with Morton was not revealed until after her death.
"These tapes were recorded in spring, summer and fall of 1991. Diana at that time was 31 years old. She had been married to Prince Charles for 10 years. Her life, unbeknownst to the public, was a mess," Jennings said. "She was talking to a friend, so the tone is very conversational and friendly."
Diana: In Her Own Words executive producer on how and why the princess recorded her secret interviews
The Diana who emerges from the film is surprisingly candid, self-aware, personable, humorous and in some sense already a tragic figure: trapped in a loveless marriage, misunderstood by the Royal Family and struggling with issues of self-worth.
"I found her to be really introspective and self-reflective -- 'Why am I this way?' or 'How did this happen?' She talks about her own internal emotional struggles and mental issues that she was facing and how she was having to see psychiatrists and battling bulimia," Jennings told us. "I didn't find her to be self-reflective -- and I hope the audience doesn't think this -- in a narcissistic kind of way."
It was a very unhappy childhood... very unstable, the whole thing.
Diana recounts her childhood, born to parents who would divorce when she was seven. As a teenager she met Prince Charles, who initially dated her older sister Sarah. In the tapes she speaks of being surprised Charles would find her in any way interesting; yet since girlhood she had foreseen marrying someone prominent.
The world thrilled at what seemed a storybook romance. But as their wedding date approached Diana became more and more convinced that her intended loved another -- Camilla Parker-Bowles.
The Prince Charles in this film seems vacant and detached, apparently unmoved by his wife's psychological problems. During the couple's courtship he is asked by reporters on more than one occasion if he is indeed in love. He replies, "Whatever that (love) means."
Jennings concedes the portrait of Charles is skewed.
"It is her point of view, that's true," he acknowledged. "Wherever we could in the (news clips) that we used we would try and find moments -- especially in the early parts of their marriage -- where Charles showed some kind of kindness towards her or some kind of protectiveness... We were always looking for moments from Charles that would help balance him out a little bit... We would have done more if we could have found more. Seriously, we really would have."
A counter-narrative existed during Diana's life -- perhaps advanced by the Royal Family -- that she was unstable, immature, and impossible to deal with. Jennings says his film doesn't ignore Diana's darker moments, including postpartum depression after the birth of William.
"She says, 'Boy, was I trouble.' She says those words," Jennings said. "She's admitting it."
I was able to recognize an inner determination, to survive.
Whatever Diana's foibles, viewers will find it hard not to sympathize with her. As a 19 year old, she became a virgin sacrifice to the British crown. She would die in Paris, the quarry of the paparazzi, essentially abandoned to her fate by her former in-laws.
"In thinking about why are we still seeing films, why are we still talking about her, my answer to that is she represented something that is almost ingrained in all of us, in our childhoods about the prince and the princess and the castle and the happily ever after," Jennings observed. "You have this beautiful young girl getting married to the most eligible bachelor in the western world, the Prince of Wales, and they're going to live in a castle. And people wanted that dream -- if they couldn't have it for themselves they would live it through her... She represented that dream and then she died and that dream died with her. And I think to this day, for people who remember her, I think there's still remnants of that that are still in people's hearts and souls."
Jennings continued, "For younger people who may not know much about her I think she also represents this idea that some day the prince will come. I think it's something none of us really want to ever let go of, even though we know it's not true."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.