THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE MURDER THAT SHOOK THE WORLD.
It didn’t matter that director Bryan Fogel had won an Oscar for the documentary Icarus. After the premiere of his new film The Dissident at the Sundance film festival in January 2020, he had a hard time finding a distributor. It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the quality of the film. But the subject matter was controversial. Examining the murder case of Jamal Khashoggi puts streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime at risk of losing important business deals with Saudi Arabia. Boats must not be rocked. Fortunately, a smaller distributor, Briarcliff, made sure we get to see this great documentary.
Part of the Saudi establishment
Jamal Khashoggi was a Saudi journalist and author who became an international celebrity, partly due to his unique insight into the rulers of his country. Khashoggi was never a radical who spent most of his time in exile, increasingly unfamiliar with his country. On the contrary, he was part of the Saudi establishment, a prominent figure in Riyadh and close to the royal family. When Mohammed bin Salman was named Crown Prince and became the de facto ruler due to his father’s failing health, he initiated a series of reforms, including allowing women to drive. These steps were supported by Khashoggi who wanted to see greater freedom for his people… but he could also see straight through the Crown Prince. Whenever anyone criticized Mohammed, they were arrested.
There was little real change, and Khashoggi frequently criticized the regime in international media. When Mohammed tightened his grip on the country, Khashoggi quickly took a flight out of Riyadh and avoided being locked up in house arrest, like so many other prominent Saudi figures. The question Mohammed must have asked himself was, what to do about this threat to his authority?
Relying on several investigations
We know what happened. On October 2, 2018, Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain documents for his upcoming marriage. His bride-to-be, Hatice Cengiz, waited outside, but Khashoggi never left the consulate. Two years later, we have several reports to rely on, including the Turkish police investigation, a United Nations report and a CIA investigation, all telling us that Mohammed bin Salman sent a team of assassins to the consulate who were waiting for Khashoggi. Inside, he was murdered and dismembered, the remains later burnt at the residence of the Saudi consulate general. There isn’t much doubt; the evidence includes audio recordings of what went on inside this consulate of horrors.
One is struck by how clumsy this operation was, but it’s a clear sign of a dictatorship feeling confident enough that they can do pretty much whatever they like; murdering a journalist is not something that’s going to damage the relationship with the United States. Saudi Arabia is just too valuable a strategic partner. When watching this film, there is every reason to feel your blood boil; a very convincing case is built against the untouchable Mohammed bin Salman, who denies knowing anything about who ordered the murder.
At the same time, the filmmakers also devote a lot of time to the story about Khashoggi the human being, a well-needed portrait in the world of sinister politics. We meet Hatice who was going to be his wife, and also Omar Abdulaziz, a video blogger who represents a future for Saudi Arabia.
The story about Jamal Khashoggi and the murder is powerful as it is, but this documentary has even more to offer, delivering tension, engaging interviews and unique footage; very well-crafted and visually arresting.
The Dissident 2020-U.S. 119 min. Color. Produced by Bryan Fogel, Thor Halvorssen, Mark Monroe, Jake Swantko. Directed by Bryan Fogel. Screenplay: Bryan Fogel, Mark Monroe.
Last word: “My first trip to Istanbul was in early November, about a month after he had been gone. I spent five weeks there during that time, no cameras, no crew, just with me and my producing partner, Jake, and we met with Hatice probably 10 times. It was an every other day kind of thing. Each time, it was just, ‘Listen. I’m not here for a day. I’m not here for a week. I’m not here for a month. I’m here as long as you want me to be here.’ The first five weeks I was there, we didn’t shoot.” (Fogel, Esquire)