Gina Mei
May 14, 2015 2:48 pm

On Wednesday, The Hollywood Reporter announced that Stephany Folsom will write the screenplay for Disney’s The Princess of North Sudan, a film inspired by the true story of an American dad who claimed a small territory in Africa so his daughter could be a “real-life” princess.

“I started trying to find land that didn’t belong to any nation or tribe or government, and discovered Bir Tawil, the only piece of land on Earth that is unclaimed,” Jeremiah Heaton, the father, told The Daily Mail last year. “It didn’t belong to Sudan or Egypt, as verified by their maps for the last 100 years, so it was the ideal place to go and create your own country.”

While the project has been in development since last November, after yesterday’s announcement, renewed outrage has erupted across the Internet in response to the movie’s premise. Many have taken to Twitter to voice their opinions on the film, saying that it is “romanticizing colonialism” and a story of “literal white entitlement.” Unsurprisingly, many were not too pleased to find out that Disney’s first African princess (not to be confused with its first African-American princess, Tiana of The Princess and the Frog) would be a white American — particularly after they discovered how Heaton “founded” his country. Folsom responded to the criticism on Twitter yesterday and earlier today, but has since deleted most of her tweets.

The tweets were not particularly reassuring and, in fact, only sparked more confusion — especially given the fact that “planting a flag in Sudan [and] making a white girl the princess of an African country” is exactly what Heaton did, from a completely literal and neutral perspective. In June 2014, the Virginia farmer traveled 6,000 miles (including 14 hours in a caravan) to the unclaimed territory, all in order to plant a flag originally designed by his children on the back of a restaurant placemat. The “country’s founding” was on his daughter’s 7th birthday.

“I just followed the same process as many others have done over hundreds of years, planted our flag, and claimed it,” Heaton told The GuardianThe process Heaton is referring to is, of course, colonialism — but he insists that his case is different.

“What I am doing is the exact opposite of colonialism,” he said. “The dictionary defines colonialism as one country taking control of another to exploit its resources or people. Bir Tawil is not a country, it does not have a population, and I don’t represent the United States or a corporation. . . What we’re doing is designed to improve people’s lives.”

Heaton hopes to turn North Sudan into an experimental territory for growing food in dry, desert climates, and has already garnered the interest of hundreds of scientists around the world. The family hopes to crowd-fund an initial goal of $250,000 to help realize his children’s dream “to grow a garden big enough to feed everyone in the world.”

“There are those naysayers with their skepticism who criticize what we are trying to do, which is eliminate world hunger,” he told The Daily Mail. “Is it far-fetched? Absolutely. Time will tell whether this project is successful, but along the road I’m going to do everything I can to make this dream a reality.”

“If [my daughter] is part of the mosaic of activities that created the solution to solve world hunger, that’s more than any parent can want for their children,” he continued.

One could argue that there are probably better, more realistic ways to try to tackle that goal than staking claim over so-called “no man’s land” in Africa. Even though Heaton has submitted a formal application to the United Nations for observer entity status and set up an embassy in Denmark, many experts have said that if he were to make a “serious move” to claim the land, it would likely be shut down by either Egypt or Sudan almost immediately. As Bim Adewumni pointed out in The Guardian, the whole thing also goes against an important lesson from Disney’s Pocahontas“You think you own whatever land you land on / The earth is just a dead thing you can claim.”

Of course, as of now, we don’t yet have enough details to really determine how close to the original story the film will be. According to The Hollywood Reporter, “The studio is focusing on the relationship between the father and daughter set against a backdrop of a fantastical adventure.” We’re totally open to finding out more, and giving Disney (and Folsom) the benefit of the doubt for how they choose to interpret it — but it’s tricky territory to navigate. The implications of Heaton’s claim on Bir Tawil is much more complex than a father’s desire to give his daughter the world (in this case, perhaps literally). Africa’s history with colonialism is absolutely horrifying, and we need to challenge why Heaton felt he was entitled to claim the territory in the first place.

At the very least, we hope that The Princess of North Sudan addresses these concerns, and is honest about the problematic nature of its base story. Ideally, it will even explore concepts of colonization and privilege (but we know this is unlikely). By creating the film, Disney is legitimizing Heaton’s story and spreading it to a large audience of young children. But what lessons does the film hope to teach by promoting it? We look forward to finding out more about how Folsom and Disney intend to interpret it.

(Images via AP,  via Shutterstock.)

Advertisement