Unfolding with a sense of urgency that propelled his 2017 film “Icarus” to critical acclaim, and an Oscar win, Bryan Fogel’s follow-up “The Dissident,” which tracks the lead up to and fallout surrounding the Jamal Khashoggi assassination, is a propulsive call to action that stands as one of the best documentaries of the year.
Beginning in the aftermath of Khashoggi’s murder, at the hands of Saudi officials under the leadership of Mohammed bin Salman (nicknamed MBS, if only to make his particular brand of ‘reform’ seem palpable), Fogel hopscotches between Khashoggi’s slow, but steady, progression from Saudi critic to full-on dissident and the fallout, and in many cases lack thereof, after his torture and murder. Coming on the heels of Rick Rowley’s panoramic documentary about Khashoggi, “Kingdom of Silence,” which adopted a larger investigatory lens into Saudi-US relations, using Khashoggi as a window into those geopolitical alliances, Fogel’s film digs into Khashoggi’s personal and professional life, centralizing his humanity.
Just as Fogel acted as an intermediary, and audience surrogate, in “Icarus,” “The Dissident” centralizes Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi dissident living in Montreal who attracted a notable social media following, and the attention of Khashoggi, whose political views evolved in the wake of the Arab Spring. Together, the two attempted to undermine MBS’ evolving control of Saudi citizens’ use of social media, ultimately leading to Khashoggi’s assassination at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey, as he was obtaining documents related to a planned marriage. The brazen act of killing Khashoggi on foreign soil, and the haphazard cover-up that ensued, including a comically inept body-double who walked around Turkey, was something seemingly out of a dark comedy, highlighting just how much political cover MBS believed he had.
Yet, Fogel’s documentary juxtaposes the ensuing fallout of Khashoggi’s murder, including interviews with the investigators and filmed accounts of the crime scene, as well as exploring Khashoggi’s expansive role in reporting on Saudi Arabia, and translating ideological divides to Western readers. As Omar explains, Khashoggi was not fully against MBS’ attempts to transform the Middle East into a global technological hub, but the way that MBS went (and still goes) about this transformation is through brute intimidation and silencing critics, as well as an ongoing Twitter war to control the message coming out of Saudi Arabia.
“The Dissident” nimbly balances these complex relations, breaking down MBS’s relationship with US diplomats and businessmen, including Jeff Bezos, who was caught in an odd position of being the owner of the Washington Post, where Khashoggi wrote, and working towards a deal to bring more infrastructure to the Middle East (which he eventually backed away from, in the wake of Khashoggi’s killing). For such dense subject matter, Fogel creates a streamlined, yet Cliff-Noted version, of the blowback that MBS received in the wake of the assassination, although not to the extent perhaps hoped for. If MBS is a central antagonist of “The Dissident,” Trump is not far behind in Fogel’s scorn, as he continues to genuflect to dictators, openly questioning the validity of MBS’ role in the murder, which is pretty obviously tied to him (his own security guards took part in it).
While not the sweeping historical exploration of “Kingdom of Silence,” Fogel’s film vigorously interrogates the reasons and methods behind Khashoggi’s murder, creating a humane portrait of a fiercely political journalist. As is shown through the interviews with Omar, as well as Khashoggi’s widow Hatice Cengiz, who took up the mantle of dissidence after his death, Jamal Khashoggi was someone who believed in the possibility of political change, even in his death. By intermixing talking heads, archival footage, and compelling re-enactments, “The Dissident” is a must-see film that places Fogel on the top-tier of political documentarians. [A]
“The Dissident” arrives in select theaters on December 25 and on VOD on January 8.