Review: “The Dissident”

On October 2, 2018, Washington Post journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and never left. Over two years later, Khashoggi’s loved ones are still seeking justice for his murder, a premeditated crime committed by Saudi officials—and largely believed to have been ordered by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman—solely because Khashoggi exercised his right to freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and encouraged others to do so as well. Oscar-winning director Bryan Fogel offers up a thorough investigation of the events leading up to, during, and after Khashoggi’s murder in his new documentary, “The Dissident.”

In “The Dissident,” Fogel doesn’t necessarily have any new revelations or information about the case to offer, but he does lay out all of the facts of the matter in a well-constructed way that often resembles a political thriller. Fogel actually begins his film not with Khashoggi but with Omar Abdulaziz, another Saudi dissident who currently hosts a YouTube show criticizing Saudi Arabia’s leadership. One of the first things Abdulaziz tells us is that he cannot return to his home country because of the things he has said. He lives in Canada now; his brothers and over 20 of his friends, meanwhile, have been imprisoned back home because of their relationship to him. Abdulaziz was close friends with Khashoggi, and worked with him often up to his assassination.

Omar Abdulaziz in “The Dissident”

Hearing the stories of these two dissidents—Khashoggi’s life and work described in interviews with his friends and colleagues, and Abdulaziz relating his own experiences himself—really hammers home the fact that freedom of speech is not a right that citizens of Saudi Arabia have. And that message comes at a time when we in the United States have seen those promised freedoms being suppressed by some groups, and weaponized by others. Khashoggi’s fate is a brutal reminder of what can happen when those freedoms are denied and power remains unchecked, and Fogel’s film not only recounts his story, but serves as a call to action. As of today, the most high-powered suspected perpetrators have been acquitted of any crime, and bin Salman continues to deny any involvement. What happened to Khashoggi is in danger of fading from memory, despite happening a mere couple of years ago.

Stylistically, parts of “The Dissident” feel a little dated, like the chintzy CGI effects meant to demonstrate a virus attacking a computer system. But for the most part, Fogel’s combination of new interviews and footage and text excerpts from Twitter messages and transcripts is effective. Where he really succeeds, however, is in his portrayal of Khashoggi as more than a victim of an unfathomable crime. Via interviews, we get a sense of who he was as a writer, an activist, and as a man. Fogel finds the heart of his film in Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancée, who Fogel interviewed extensively. It was under the presumption that he was obtaining papers necessary for his marriage to Hatice that Khashoggi entered the consulate (in fact, he was lured there by his assassins). Hatice waited for him outside, for hours. The film follows her as she continues to publicly advocate for justice for Khashoggi, but it also finds her in quieter moments. She reflects on how she and Jamal first met and fell in love, and the film in this moment takes on the tone of a bona fide love story. She talks about the apartment they were going to live in together, and later, after Jamal’s assassination, we see her return there. Their home has been dusted for fingerprints; many of Jamal’s things have been taken in for evidence. She sits in his favorite chair. Her presence, along with Omar’s, breathes humanity into this story that is much more than a headline.

Hatice Cengiz with her fiance Jamal Khashoggi

Fogel briefly explores in “The Dissident” how Saudi Arabia’s financial influence has resulted in some leaders refusing to speak against bin Salman; former President Trump notably refused to say whether or not bin Salman had any involvement in Khashoggi’s assassination, despite a CIA investigation in which all signs point to yes, and vetoed a proposal to cease selling weapons to Saudi Arabia. And the fact that the documentary draws direct connections between the assassination to Saudi leadership has effected the film itself. Despite Fogel winning an Oscar a few years ago for his documentary “Icarus,” and despite “The Dissident” having a massively successful premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last year, it went for months without landing any distributors. Finally, the relatively small Briarcliff Entertainment picked it up, but the film is currently only playing in limited theaters and on demand for a $20 rental, preventing it from reaching the large audiences that a streaming service like Netflix or Amazon (despite Jeff Bezos himself appearing in the film opposite Hatice, publicing voicing support for her and Jamal) could have reached for the time being. Fogel told Variety in a recent interview:

“This is a depressing and eye-opening moment that any filmmaker that wishes to tell a story like this needs to pay attention to. These global media conglomerates are aiding and abetting and silencing films that take on subject matter like this despite the fact their audiences want content like this. I was told that “Icarus” has had somewhere in the neighborhood of 700 million views. I don’t know if that’s accurate, but I know it was substantial. The decision not to acquire “The Dissident” had nothing to do with its critical reviews, had nothing to do with a global audience’s appetite to watch a docu-thriller, but had everything to do with business interests and politics and, who knows, perhaps pressure from the Saudi government….It has been a struggle to get this film into the world and to shine a light on the human rights abuses that are happening in that kingdom. These companies, that have chosen not to distribute this film, in my opinion, are complicit.”

It’s easy to say “it’s just business,” but it’s alarming to see a film like this not silenced, but prohibited from reaching as many people as it ought to be able to for those reasons. And so the fight for justice for Jamal continues.

“The Dissident” is now playing in select theaters and is available to rent on demand on all digital platforms. Runtime: 119 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Media review screener courtesy Briarcliff Entertainment.

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