When Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, the global outrage was instantaneous. Nevertheless, a year and a half later, the murky circumstances behind his death remain a source of constant speculation, and despite the Saudi Arabian government’s decision to execute several unidentified men for the crime, it remains unclear just how much justice has been served.
Khashoggi’s death almost certainly stemmed from his criticism of the Saudi Arabian government, and the idea that Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman had no idea about it simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. “The Dissident,” documentarian Bryan Fogel’s somber recap of the circumstances surrounding the tragic event, presents an urgent and essential opportunity to set the record straight.
Unlike Fogel’s Oscar-winning Olympics doping exposé “Icarus,” the new documentary focuses less on new information than condensing and making sense of the situation as it stands. It makes up for a dry and sometimes stilted filmmaking approach through sheer clarity of purpose: Khashoggi’s name may have generated headlines, but “The Dissident” goes beyond the details of his demise to position them in the broader context of his career. Fogel assembles a sturdy compendium of talking heads to explain how Khashoggi managed to speak truth to power for so long, and why his fate reverberates for other Saudis who share his sentiments.
To that end, the movie’s chief subject is fighting the same battles. Montreal-based video blogger Omar Abdulaziz, a 27-year-old pundit whose anti-Saudi government tweets led to his expulsion, provides a centerpiece for Fogel’s narrative as he jumps between the investigation into Khashoggi’s death and his work leading up to that point. Abdulaziz, whose siblings remain imprisoned as a result of his public activism abroad, embodies the ethos that ultimately sealed Khashoggi’s terrible fate. Watching the young man explain his quest is harrowing in light of how things turned out for his inspiration.
Abdulaziz was ultimately a victim of a cybersecurity breach traced back to the Saudi Arabian government, and he wasn’t alone. As Fogel elucidates in one of the more scandalous revelations, the Saudis hacked into Jeff Bezos’ phone — possibly even initiating the National Inquirer story about his affair — presumably because the Washington Post owner didn’t censor his publication’s response to Khashoggi’s execution. The smoking gun here involves screen grabs of Bezos’ WhatsApp exchanges with the Crown Prince (aka “MBS”), a direct connection that facilitated the ability to hack his phone. If there were any lingering doubts about the country’s top dog playing a role in this damning conspiracy, “The Dissident” does a fine job of extinguishing them.
Juggling haunting 3D graphics with a moody score, Fogel illustrates how the Saudis developed a digital strategy for targeting its critics abroad, including thousands of pro-Saudi Twitter accounts run by propagandists at the behest of the government. It also touches on the upside to the digital age, with Twitter becoming so prevalent in Saudi Arabia that some 80 percent of its residents use the service. That platform has enabled a new energy among those keen on pushing back at the throne’s tyrannical grip, and the ability to conceive of a “new Middle East” committed to democratic ideals.
For Abdulaziz and his peers, victory comes in small doses, with the rise of the so-called “Bee Army” opposition movement aiming to protect Saudi activists seeking an outlet to voice their concerns. Khashoggi’s support for the movement may have catalyzed the government’s efforts to take him out, and while the stone-faced Abdulaziz doesn’t exactly sob for the camera, it’s clear that he’s wrestling with some measure of guilt.
At the same time, “The Dissident” makes it clear that Abdulaziz embodies his mentor’s relentless drive by explaining its evolution. The movie doesn’t dwell on every facet of Khashoggi’s career, but provides an ample survey of the sacrifices that elevated his voice. One of his longtime peers claims that the dissident label doesn’t capture the man’s essence. “Jamal was more of a reformer,” he says, pointing out how he pivoted from 30 years of government work to a role in American media that put him in a better position to expose its oppressive tendencies.
Khashoggi only appears in fleeting archival material throughout, and “The Dissident” often lacks the benefit of hearing him voice his own concerns. (It’s also short on detailing the bulk of his reporting, but thankfully the internet has that covered.) Nevertheless, his final career stage is explained through a fascinating origin story — the decision to abandon his family and home for a new life in Washington D.C., away from the clutches of Saudi influence, speaks volumes about the nature of his resolve. He finds the opportunity for a fresh start with young fiancé Hatice Cengiz, who had been waiting for him outside the consulate when he never came out. Cengiz drifts through the documentary like a phantom, recalling their courtship in touching voiceover but clearly so traumatized she has yet to fully process his loss.
Of course, nobody has. When Fogel finally gets around to recounting the horrifying details surrounding Khashoggi’s murder, they unfold with the harrowing rhythms of a real-time thriller, as UN officials and Turkish investigators explain the mutilation and cover-up that unfolded over the course of several hours. Khashoggi himself diagnoses the problem — “You have no right!” he cries in his last few minutes — and the movie excels at positioning that miscarriage of justice front and center.
At a memorial for Khashoggi that closes the movie, Cengiz addresses her late fiancé, bemoaning “a world of politics devoid of your ideas.” Thankfully, “The Dissident” assures that world has yet to arrive, and closes with Abdulaziz carrying on Khashoggi’s desire to launch an alternative media network for likeminded citizens. The government had its way, but Khashoggi’s story is just getting started, and “The Dissident” marks the beginning of an important new chapter.
“The Dissident” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.