At 1:14 pm on October 2, 2018, Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. He was never seen again. While his fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, stood anxiously waiting outside, he was brutally suffocated, murdered and dismembered. Despite initial denials, it was soon evident that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had orchestrated a state-sponsored assassination in a foreign country, ordered by the inscrutable, flinty-eyed, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
The Dissident, the new documentary from Academy Award-winner Bryan Fogel (Icarus), delves into the complex story surrounding Khashoggi’s disappearance, and the events leading up to it. The film is a chilling tale of what happens when despots, petrodollars and techno-espionage collide. It is a searing indictment of the Saudi Kingdom’s brazen elimination of a mild-mannered insider who chose to dissent.
On the phone from his home, the director recalls the genesis of this film: “The experience of Icarus was very stressful. On one hand, the film was receiving accolades, and it wins the Academy Award. On the other hand, the subject of the film [Grigory Rodchenkov], whom I grew to love and think of as one of my dearest friends in life, and I had been not able to see since July of 2016, was living under 24-hour security with a true threat on his life. Around March 2018, [there] was also the poisoning of [double agent] Sergei Skripal, and at that time, Grigory's lawyer had received a credible threat from intelligence that there were Russian agents in the United States hunting for Grigory. I share this with you because, coming through that experience of Icarus, I felt that I had this burden, a responsibility that I couldn’t go and make a scripted thriller or a music doc. I had to follow up with something that had impact, that had relevance, that had meaning, that I felt that needed light shined upon it, but at the same time would be a story that could be very personal and emotional.”
“So coming through Icarus,” Fogel continues, “I'm going to all these meetings, getting sent all these scripts and pitched all these projects, but nothing resonated. And so I was just figuring out what that next project was going to be, and it's early October, and the Khashoggi disappearance is unfolding in the worldwide media.”
As the director learned more about Jamal Khashoggi, he was drawn to the story. Fogel admits, “There is something in me that really wants to fight for the underdog. And the Khashoggi story felt like it needed that. Especially as in Western media [Fox News], he was being portrayed as Muslim Brotherhood, or as a terrorist sympathizer, because he had met with bin Laden back in the '80s in Afghanistan—at a time when the United States was working with bin Laden.”
As he began reading Khashoggi’s many articles, Fogel realized, “This is a moderate who loved his country, who had spent many years of his life working in the United States, who had been educated at an American college, who simply believed that his country could do better than it was, and he wasn't saying that the monarchy should be overthrown. This was not an activist trying to create true political change in the country.”
But the factors which led to Khashoggi’s entrapment and demise are more complex than just his candid journalism; it is a twisting plot that involves government propaganda, fake Twitter accounts, Israeli spyware and hacked phones. The film opens like a suspenseful 1970s crime thriller, under grey skies of Montreal, where a Saudi blogger, Omar Abdulaziz, speaks nervously on the phone. We learn that his anti-regime tweets have led first to his exile, then an attempted rendition, and lastly to the imprisonment of his brothers. The documentary skillfully weaves together different narrative strands, until they coalesce: the investigation of a crime scene, a love story and a political thriller.
“In my mind,” Fogel recalls, “I decided I wanted to make this film on October 20. And before I knew that I could actually make the film, it was the end of January. During that time, I had spent over two months in Istanbul, meeting with Hatice, where we would just get together, it was just so gut-wrenching, but it also made me so impassioned to want to take this on. I spent four weeks in Montreal, and I wasn’t there with cameras. I was there just building trust, building relationships.”
For the director, access and trust were the two biggest variables in deciding to proceed with the film. “In order to tell this story, I needed the participation of the Turks. If they were not going to allow me access, then I'd be telling an archival story, a story that's already in the news. To this day, none of these people—İrfan Fidan, the chief prosecutor; Abdülhamit Gül, the justice minister; Recep Kiliç, the police CSI forensic examiner; Fahrettin Altun, the president's spokesperson—have given an interview or appeared on camera. But I knew that if I didn’t have that, it wasn't going be the film that I wanted it to be, and I couldn’t tell the story as impactfully.”
Winning the Oscar for Best Documentary did help in gaining access, and Fogel concedes, “Had I set out to make this film prior to Icarus, it would've been impossible. Had Icarus not won the Academy Award, I don't believe that I would've been able to actually make this film. It opened the door for me to tell this story, and added an element of trust having that accolade, especially with the Turks, that gave them the confidence to work with me.”
But gaining trust of the other main characters of the film took time and patience “With Omar,” Fogel explains, “it was a situation where he wasn't willing to participate, but he allowed me to start filming, with the caveat that every single time after we filmed, I would leave him with all the camera cards. And so we did this for about six months. And about six months into working with Omar, now June, he handed me back all the camera cards. There was a massive leap of faith there that we just kept going.”
The director discloses that the beginning required a substantial investment of time and money: “The first four months of working on the project, I was just financing it out of my own pocket. I was really hesitant to take any investment or outside money until I knew that I could actually fulfill my promise. For me, there were three variables: Omar, Hatice and the Turkish government, and that they would all work with me exclusively. And if that wasn't going to happen, I wasn't going make the film because I felt that I couldn’t. I wouldn’t be able to craft something that was not already in the news.”
The documentary has unique access to previously unseen security camera footage, audio transcripts from inside the consulate, and videos of the investigation by Turkish authorities. The mounting evidence not only proves that the murder was a state operation, but really captures the brutality and mercilessness of the operatives. Before Khashoggi’s arrival at the consulate, the Consul and the hit squad—flown in via private diplomatic jet from Riyadh—discussed with cynical ease the gruesome specifics of the killing, as if these were just routine, mundane procedures.
The fact that this was an extrajudicial, arbitrary killing also helped in securing Turkish participation. Fogel recalls, “What I found in these meetings with the government, the prosecutor and the police was this sense that was this violation of their country. Not only did they [the Saudis] murder someone on Turkish soil, but their plan was to plant the murder on the Turks. It’s something that the Turkish presidency took very personally; the audacity that this crime happened in Istanbul, a place where a dissident such as Jamal, who had safe haven, whom the Turkish welcomed.”
The film is very timely and highly relevant, as authoritarian regimes increasingly use social networks to spread their propaganda; cyber warfare is the way of the future. As Fogel attests, “The battlegrounds of the world are being fought in cyber technology, on the internet. They're being fought through surveillance and hacking, through planting viruses and bugs on peoples' phones or systems, to shut down power grids, as Russia did in the Ukraine.”
As Khashoggi’s pen became mightier than the Kingdom’s sword, the long arm of Saudi tyranny, not content with just muzzling critics with armies of bots, felt it needed to silence the strongest dissenting voice permanently. Modern technology was used to ensnare him, but his slaying was gruesomely medieval.
The Dissident will make the viewer paranoid, and rightly so; not since Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour has a film on cyber-surveillance had such an alarming effect. If governments can kill prominent journalists, and hack the phone of the richest man in the world [Jeff Bezos], who among us is safe?
Sadly, the film is an urgent reminder of the fragility of a free press. “Democracy Dies in Darkness” is on the masthead of The Washington Post. And yet darkness is what the film was met with. As Fogel recounts, “We went into Sundance, and I had great optimism that we would have a global streaming distributor that would come behind the film and give it the light that our team believes it deserves.
“In the case of Amazon,” Fogel continues, “they announced a deal that they would be acquiring Souk, which is the Amazon of Saudi Arabia. Bezos owns The Washington Post, yet they're still doing business with the Kingdom. Netflix just last month announced an eight-picture deal with Saudi Arabia. What we're seeing is that business interests, shareholder value, and the allure of Saudi money and investment are much more powerful than human rights, than standing by truth-tellers or fighting for justice for Jamal or for the countless thousands of people who sit in Saudi prisons who have done nothing more than send a tweet criticizing the Kingdom. It speaks to a very sad day for filmmakers such as myself, who are willing to take these risks, who want to bring these stories to light. And American media companies are essentially, through their complicity, silencing these voices. In their silence, in their choosing not to distribute this film, they are sending a message to the world that these behaviors will be tolerated. I'm an idealist, and believe that if these business leaders, that have the ability to really do something about it, and choose not to, what kind of place is our world?”
Reflecting on the impact making the documentary had on him, the director concludes, “This film has been the most emotional journey of my life, and this journey has given me a lot of love for the Arab world. I look at the Arab world differently now. I saw that whatever those perceptions I might've had were not correct. I don't see any ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ I see it all as humans, all just trying to make the world a better place, to have a voice, to have a freedom.”
The Dissident will be available on PVoD starting January 8, 2021.
Originally published in Documentary magazine