This is an important documentary that has been avoided for too long. In recounting the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, The Dissident presents a biography of the man, his association with Saudi Arabia, and a thorough overview of the geopolitical forces that caused his tragic death. Directed by Bryan Fogel, it is a very worthy successor to his debut film Icarus, which won Netflix its first Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature back in 2018. Why, then, did this truth-seeking film get ignored?
Fogel had hoped for a distribution deal with one of the streaming giants at Sundance 2020, yet he left Park City empty handed. This was despite an audience that included Hillary Clinton, Alec Baldwin and Reed Hastings, the Netflix chief executive. Clearly, Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi was just too hot for the major platforms, whose leaders were more interested in the bottom line than standing up for human rights. After all, Netflix had an eight-film deal with Telefaz11 to sign, while Amazon was busy establishing its retail services in the Kingdom. Happily, six months after Sundance, Tom Ortenberg’s Briarcliff Entertainment stepped in and offered to distribute.
Fogel tells the narrative through two focalisers: Omar Abdulaziz, a young Saudi dissident exiled in Montreal; and Hatice Cengiz, a Turkish academic who became Khashoggi’s fiancé. Together, these subjects provide an insight into Khashoggi the ‘lonely patriot’. Abdulaziz met with Khashoggi in 2017 shortly after he arrived in Washington DC, having fled the ‘unbearable’ weight of Saudi oppression. Together, they formed ‘the bees’, which was a successful effort to battle Mohammed bin Salman’s Twitter trolls. Controlling the narrative of social media is particularly important for critics of the regime as over 80% of Saudi Arabia is on Twitter, making it the so-called ‘Parliament of the Arabs’.
American exile brought Khashoggi success and security, but it also brought him desperate loneliness. It wasn’t until he met Cengiz that he could have a life outside of the Kingdom’s shadow. Alas, it was his intention to marry Cengiz that took him to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he was to obtain marriage documents. Instead, he was stripped of his clothes and suffocated to death; his body cut up with a bone saw and discarded in a fire pit.
Fogel does an admirable job in condensing the machinations of Khashoggi’s death and the effect it continues to have on his peers and his country. Yet there are personal details that go by the wayside. For instance, we’re told of his 30-year alliance with the Saudi establishment, but we are not adequately informed of his earlier sympathy for Islamism or his affection for Osama bin Laden, whose passing he sorely lamented, “You were beautiful and brave in those beautiful days in Afghanistan, before you surrendered to hatred and passion.” We hear little in the way of criticism, too, such as an appraisal in The Spectator that claimed Khashoggi, “frequently sugarcoated his Islamist beliefs with constant references to freedom and democracy.” To include these commentaries would not have slandered the man but developed him, sharing with the audience exactly what he stood for, which was political Islam with moderate characteristics.
Some may smell a whiff of hagiography in this, but such details are best reserved for further reading, as The Dissident is rightfully anchored by its subject’s tragedy, which saw a world leader use the vagaries of international law to murder a journalist who criticised his mobster regime. The CIA and the UN were unequivocal in their verdict that Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the killing, yet no action has been taken besides a farcical Saudi show trial. Meanwhile, Omar Abdulaziz’s brother and 22 of his friends remained imprisoned without charge. The Dissident isn’t just a documentary, it’s a call to action.
THE DISSIDENT will have its UK Premiere online at the Glasgow Film Festival on 6 March, and Irish Premiere online at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival on 13 March
For more information visit www.thedissident.film