Diana, Our Mother Subjects Recall Haunting Moments from Princess' Final Days
Princess Diana's final trip to Bosnia: HBO documentary subjects reflect on emotional journey
Nearly 20 years after Princess Diana's death, HBO's forthcoming documentary Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy (Monday, July 24 at 10 p.m. ET) is perhaps the most intimate cinematic portrait of the late royal in existence, delivering emotional interviews with her sons, princes William and Harry, childhood friends, and professional colleagues — including partners who worked with her on social causes relating to homelessness, AIDS, and her efforts to ban landmines. The film, directed by Ashley Gething and executive-produced by Nick Kent, sees Diana's sons speaking in-depth about their mother for the first time in a major public capacity in an effort to reframe her legacy for younger generations, and, as William declares in a heartfelt introduction to the project, they don't intend to do so again in the foreseeable future. "It’s completely natural for her sons to be so private about their mother. When your duty as a member of the Royal Family requires you to spend so much of your life in the public spotlight, it’s all the more important to keep aspects of your family life private," Kent and Gething tell EW in a joint statement. "Although this is a story about a very particular person and how her two sons saw her, it’s also a film with universal appeal: how do you keep alive the memory of someone you have loved and lost? It’s a challenge we all have to face at some point in our lives." In the gallery ahead, two documentary subjects, Ken Rutherford and Jerry White, who accompanied the Princess on her final humanitarian trip to Bosnia amid her ongoing crusade against landmines, reflect on the emotional journey and share deeply personal stories of her compassionate spirit that lives on, to this day, through the charitable work of her sons.
Diana arrived at the Sarajevo International Airport on Aug. 8, 1997
From the moment Diana set foot in Sarajevo, Rutherford could feel her dedication to the cause. "I welcomed her at the airport. At the time, Bosnia was reported to have over one million landmines scattered around the roads and fields, and an estimated 100,000 civilians and fighters had been killed during the war between 1992 and 1995, so Princess Diana’s visit was a happy occasion for a newly emerging country eager for positive news," he says. "Princess Diana traveled Bosnia’s back roads for nearly 72 hours (Aug. 8 - Aug. 10) without complaint, and not heeding the discomfort of road travel on not-so-good roads and meeting survivors continuously and listening emphatically to their tragic stories. She was a champion in the truest sense of the word... She was all in. Marching step-and-step, arm-in-arm, with survivors... She walked her talk."
Diana's visit was planned in secrecy
White says information about the excursion was kept under lock-and-key, in an effort to keep the mission as personal and intimate as possible so she could ingest survivors' stories and formulate a plan of action moving forward. "Even the U.K. ambassador didn’t know she was coming... This was not about the U.K. or British establishment, but about her wanting to reach out to individuals suffering pain because of landmines and war," White explains. "Some of our hosts begged me to tell who the VIP guest would be. Was it Bianca Jagger? Um, no. Was it Hillary Clinton? Not quite. Then she arrived, and the world knew, and word spread like wildfire that the Princess of Wales had arrived in Bosnia and Herzegovina, making history. It’s true that without warning, some people didn’t know who was in town, not immediately recognizing the Princess of Wales, or imagining she would come to their war-ravaged and impoverished village."
Diana wanted to force the media to visit places they normally wouldn't cover, like Bosnia
Rutherford remembers Diana being deeply in-tune with her control over the media, and says she used it for good when it came to bending their fixation on her life to fit a good cause. "On our first night there on Aug. 8, over dinner with approximately 15 landmine survivors and their families at Hotel Bristol (now destroyed to make way for a new high-rise building), I told her, 'Thank you for being with landmine survivors in Bosnia,' and I asked her why she was with us, as I am a landmine survivor myself, losing both my legs in Somalia and Bosnia," he says. "She said, 'The media has made my life horrible, so I like to make their lives miserable by bringing them to countries they normally otherwise don't go to, to cover issues they normally don't cover.' So, it is not a coincidence that she was the first celebrity to work with landmine survivors, identifying with people on the margins."
Diana enthusiastically met with locals to hear their stories of pain, loss, and survival
"Diana listened more than she spoke. It was intense to watch her absorb human pain. She was hyper-intuitive and fully appropriate in the face of people’s suffering," White remembers, noting her willingness to understand the plight of those she visited versus treating the journey like a photo op. "She asked questions and gave her full attention, focusing her big eyes like a laser on the tragic story in front of her. Whenever I asked her how she might want to handle a particular visit, she’d say, 'We’ll make it work. It’s all about the people.' Diana repeated how it was simply important 'to care enough to show up' and be present. She’d ask questions like, 'Please tell me your story. What happened to you? How did you lose your leg? Where did you find your courage and strength to survive?' Diana would invariably reach out and touch each survivor at some point in the conversation, never cringing in the face of scars and stumps and open sores. She’d also bring in the family members, asking mothers and siblings what they had experienced, understanding a parent’s pain watching their kids suffer. She invited hope by inquiring about each survivor’s dream for the future. And she always made some side jokes to poke the tense air out of the bubble of tragedy. Humor is one of the top hallmarks of resilience, and Princess Diana always brought laughter and unexpected irreverence into the room."
Diana insisted on visiting with some of the youngest victims of the Bosnian conflict
Lady Di's commitment to fostering a safe space for war-torn Bosnia's youngest landmine victims resonated with Rutherford and White. "Zarko and Malic [pictured] each lost a leg to a landmine on opposites of the battle front lines, committing innocent acts like playing soccer and cutting wood. Jerry and I wanted to bring them together to meet Princess Diana and highlight to her and the world that landmines are indiscriminate and lethal killers, and leave a deadly legacy," Rutherford tells EW. "Landmines don’t care what religion you are – Zarko is Serbian Orthodox Christian, and Malic is Bosnian Muslim – they are going to kill or maim you. Indiscriminate weapons are illegal. Landmines should be banned. That was the rationale and purpose behind this photo op."
The image of Diana, during an unplanned side trip to a cemetery while mourning victims killed during the Bosnian Civil War, still haunts White
Of the many memories he made with Diana in Bosnia, White says one vivid moment sticks out in his mind, especially given the Princess tragically died three weeks after her trip. "The image of her in a cemetery in Sarajevo, on the last day of our three-day trip [still haunts me]. It wasn’t planned. It was never on the itinerary. But Diana told me three times, 'I can’t get this picture of me in a cemetery out of my mind.' She asked me if there was a cemetery nearby, as it was something we should visit," he says. “'Jerry, I have this feeling, this image of me in a cemetery, it’s strange.' We were running late for a final reception, and there was no room for this detour, but Princess Diana seemed adamant, mysteriously. So, we drove out of the way to the former Olympic stadium that had become a massive graveyard for those killed during the war. I watched as Diana took her place among hundreds of tombstones. It was eerie, now that I reflect on it. She walked slowly, among tombstones and even yellow rosebushes. She met a Bosnian mother tending to the grave of her son, grieving visibly. Diana didn’t speak Bosnian, and this mother didn’t know English. So, they just embraced. So intimately, so physical, so emotional, mother-to-mother. It was vintage Diana, reaching out, wiping the mother’s tears and cheeks. It’s the only framed photograph of Diana I still have in my home. After her death in Paris only weeks later, I came to wonder whether the Princess intuited her own death, her burial. I don’t know, but maybe, psychically, intuitively, Diana sensed she was going to die. It still gives me chills when I recall this powerful, unscripted, unplanned moment, somehow prescient."
Diana's humanitarian work played a large part in inspiring the Diana, Our Mother documentary
"Diana’s legacy has lasting relevance because she touched so many people’s lives," Kent and Gething tell EW. "Although she was the daughter of an Earl and married into the Royal Family, Princess Diana had a natural empathy that meant she connected with people irrespective of their class, creed, race, or nationality. Perhaps this empathy came from her own vulnerability (as her brother, Charles, suggests in our film) and people around the world continue to respond to that... She was immensely courageous in embracing causes that were not popular and in some cases deeply controversial: homelessness, AIDS, and the campaign she waged in the last weeks of her life to ban landmines. Only now, looking back, can you appreciate how far-sighted, bold and brave she was in embracing these causes."
White's final interaction with Diana included discussions on which countries to visit next with the anti-landmine campaign
As she did with previous issues such as AIDS and homelessness in the U.K., Diana's publicizing of the dangers of landmines created a lasting impact, particularly after her death, when an international landmine ban was signed by major world powers in December 1997. Diana wanted to continue the fight for visiblity to other countries, however, as White recalls: "On our last day in Bosnia, not knowing I would never see her again, I remember locking eyes with Princess Diana, holding both her hands, saying repeatedly, gratefully, 'Thank You for all you have done to make a difference here in the lives of survivors, and our campaign to ban landmines. We will never forget this trip or this moment.' I even ventured to ask her what she thought we should do as a next step, as she had asked me about possibly planning a trip to Cambodia, or maybe Chechnya, if the British government would allow it. She asked me to think about whether it was a good idea for her to deliver a speech in Oslo at the opening of the [treaty] negotiations. I said absolutely, yes. Her final words to me were: 'Don’t worry, Jerry, we’ll be in touch about Oslo and make sure survivors are not forgotten. And, thank you for making this visit so special.'"