The Princess: Princess Diana documentary uses archive to chart public and paparazzi obsession

The Princess: Princess Diana documentary uses archive to chart public and paparazzi obsession

“All we do is take pictures,” says an unseen paparazzo midway through the new Princess Diana documentary, The Princess. “The decision to buy the pictures is taken by the picture editors of the world, and they buy the pictures so their readers can see them. So at the end of the day, the buck stops with the readers.”

It’s a cop-out, of course, and just one of the many unsettling voices laid over the film’s archival tapestry of news footage, television clips and tabloid shots, which resembles less historical record than it does some kind of elaborate media simulation; a woman’s life manufactured and sold to an eager public until her handlers decided she was expendable.

But the remark does summon those age-old specters of supply and demand. Who really killed Diana that fateful day in 1997, when her Mercedes collided with a Parisian pole at high speed? Was it the paparazzi? The Queen? Might it have been – to paraphrase Sympathy for the Devil – you and me?

After their divorce in 1996, Diana stayed in the Kensington Palace apartment she’d shared with Charles until her death the following year.(Supplied: Madman)

As one of the reigning titans of late-20th-century monoculture, the Princess of Wales was both a harbinger of our current 24/7 celebrity obsession and the last – alongside her fellow superstar deer-in-the-spotlights, Michael Jackson – of a literal dying breed of stars, their colossal fame complicated by narratives often dependent on, and at the mercy of, a ruthless media.

Comprised entirely of archival footage, the film captures the short, meteoric life of the world’s most photographed woman through the eyes of the mass media that surveilled her, moving from the tail end of Diana Spencer’s teenage years to the turbulent events of the 90s that played out across the tabloids.

It’s an approach that’s become more common in documentary cinema in recent years, especially in films that tangle with beloved famous figures, such as Asif Kapadia’s Amy, or the forthcoming David Bowie tribute Moonage Daydream; these are works that eschew talking heads and downplay overt editorialising, allowing the footage to speak for itself. (Frederick Wiseman, venerable master of the form, is owed quite a few checks.)