Cian Geoghegan checks out Bryan Fogel’s documentary that follows the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi and Saudi Arabia’s effort to control international dissent.
The murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 was an international crisis that served to illuminate the authoritarian tendencies of Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman on the world stage. Khashoggi was once an advisor and in-house journalist for the Saudi family, before he was exiled to Turkey for publicly criticizing the regime. One afternoon, Khashoggi made a visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, never to leave the building. As the story of his internment made global headlines, onlookers assumed the worst and were correct. A later investigation concluded that after the murder, his body was burned to destroy any DNA evidence.
Bryan Fogel’s documentary The Dissident, his first since 2017’s Oscar-winning Icarus, charts the reasons for Khashoggi’s exile, the cyber-attacks that were perpetuated before and in the aftermath of his murder, and the international fallout in the months that followed. Fogel is granted intimate and revealing interviews with Khashoggi’s partner Hatice Cengiz and Omar Abdulaziz, a fellow Saudi dissident. Their testimony is personal and heart-breaking. Cengiz takes Fogel to the consulate in Istanbul, where Khashoggi’s entrance and prolonged absence took its toll across many hours of waiting. Abdulaziz is seen living in Montreal, where he receives near-daily threats on his life for criticizing the Saudi regime and attempting to circumvent Saudi propaganda through organized online action.
Fogel tells their stories, and Khashoggi’s, with respect. There is frustration in every scene, as well as grief. The film is lifted up by the weight of their courage. It is in other areas where the film slips in this critic’s estimation.
When Khashoggi, in archival interview footage, talks about getting dogpiled on twitter by Saudi-funded pro-government users, the film’s aesthetic shifts to that of a video game, with digital flies buzzing towards Khashoggi’s tweets and crawling inside them like they were a nest. One understands the need to dramatize an act as mundane and irritating as getting a twitter reply. In fact, Khashoggi’s act of defiance in organising an anti-MbS army to counteract these flies is the final act of dissidence, the documentary claims, that led to his murder. This digital world is where the stakes of our story are raised. And yet, its droning score and sinister swarms seem to be a tasteless accelerant to the drama.
What sticks out as absurd about the Khashoggi story is the fact that posts on social media were the thorn in the side of the state’s all-powerful monarchy. The fact that speaking out on social media, without any direct implications for policy, is a crime worthy of exile, imprisonment or murder – this stands out as a sign that the Saudi prince is not only desperate for further power, but terrified of losing that he has. The CGI cutaways distract from the political implications of this – in seeking to dramatize the mundane, the drama is misdirected towards something less interesting than the motivations and insecurities of the people involved.
These tendencies seem to reverberate around contemporary documentary. The Social Dilemma and other films have taken to treating the digital world like a neon void with graphics that float and veer spaceship-like across the screen. It appears we have culturally circled back to the understanding of the internet showcased in 1982’s Tron. In the case of The Dissident, it is the melding of the personal testimony with such impersonal and standardized cutaway material that leave a bad taste in the viewer’s mouth.
Also leaving a bad aftertaste is the film’s veneration of Jeff Bezos, who appears towards the end of the film as a heroic figure who pushes back against MBS, pushes for further reporting on the Khashoggi case in his newspaper and appears at an event for Cengiz to mourn for her partner. None of these acts are wrong, and indeed many of them were necessary for a man in Bezos’ position, but the characterization of Bezos is cause for concern. It is here where the film loses its moral high ground, as working conditions in any of Amazon’s fulfilment centres paint a picture of Bezos that is far from the compassionate humanitarian presented here. The film almost gives Bezos the final word, telling Cengiz that no one should have to go through what she has gone through. In a democratic state, Bezos and monopolies like Amazon are the closest we come to the power of Saudi princes. To be so critical of one powerful morally dubious institution and venerate another, only serves to muddle the film’s cogent and worthwhile points about Saudi corruption.
At the other side of all this, Fogel’s film has had trouble finding distribution. None of the major streaming services, not even Amazon, want to host it due to its controversial subject matter. “If this is the world that we are now living in” says Fogel for Vanity Fair, “with a handful of major companies making content choices based on what will and won’t get in the way of their global business interests, that is very sad and disconcerting and a frightening time for storytellers”. The need to question power and hold the corrupt accountable has never been stronger. May it continue beyond the virtues and limitations of The Dissident.