THE DISSIDENT ★★★★½
M, 117 minutes
The Dissident is about much more than who killed the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. We already know that. A Turkish prosecutor, speaking for the first time, makes the mechanics of it pretty clear.
A team of 15 Saudis flew to Istanbul in October 2018, taking advantage of the fact that Khashoggi had to return to the Saudi consulate to collect a document. He went there about lunchtime on October 2, 2018 and never came out. His fiancee Hatice Cengiz waited outside for 12 hours, not wishing to believe that the worst might have happened. She alerted some of his friends in journalism, who began a campaign to force the Saudis to explain.
A mural of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.Credit:AP
Khashoggi had hesitated about going. He was already in exile, having fled the country a few years earlier to avoid arrest. His Saudi wife had been forced to divorce him. He needed documentary proof of that divorce in order to remarry.
The killing was planned. The Turkish police quickly obtained a recording made during the murder – no-one explains how they got it – and director Bryan Fogel has the full transcript, in which several individuals take part in dismemberment of Khashoggi’s body with a bone saw. A Turkish forensic policeman says the killing took place in a video-enabled conference room of the consulate, which meant the murder could be watched live ‘in another country’.
Director Bryan Fogel, left, with Khashoggi’s fiancee Hatice Cengiz at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah last year.Credit:AP
The CIA concluded within weeks that the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (known colloquially as MBS), ordered the killing. He has repeatedly denied it and remains in power, even as eight of the original 15 have been tried and convicted by a Saudi court.
In The Dissident, Fogel sifts through all of this evidence with purpose, but also with an eye for drama. Before all this detail, we meet a then-27-year-old Saudi in exile in Montreal. Omar Abdulaziz is a prominent critic of the Saudi royal family, with an influential YouTube show. He was also a close friend of Jamal Khashoggi.
Fogel films him with feature-film techniques, establishing him as a character. He then moves on to other friends and locations, adding pieces to the puzzle, as if constructing a thriller. It’s a controversial technique, because documentary is not drama. It requires objectivity, sober construction, a visual style different from a TV whodunit. At least, it used to – Fogel’s ideas of documentary challenge all those assumptions. He’s more like a lawyer than a journalist, building a case against the entire Saudi state.
In fact, it’s bigger than that. Patiently, and with impeccable sources, Fogel gives us a picture of how unfettered power and wealth are able to function in an internet-connected world. Through Omar in Montreal, he also shows how some brave people are trying to resist that power.
It’s an astonishing piece of work, both fearless and artful in the way it encompasses and orders layers of information. If our world needs new forms to encompass the complexity of modern life, The Dissident points a way forward. The film is gripping, as well as sobering, like a Bourne movie about the real world. Part of its power comes from the quality of its sources. The other aspect is the breadth of its analysis. Khashoggi worked for The Washington Post. Jeff Bezos, its owner, was targeted by Saudi hackers, using an Israeli program called Pegasus to hack his phone.
Fogel won the Oscar for best documentary of 2017 with Icarus, a film about the Soviet doping of athletes. The Dissident had been strongly fancied for this year’s Oscars but the voters ignored it –not even a nomination.
Fogel says mainstream distributors and streamers also ran the other way after the film’s success at Sundance last year. Saudi funds have a lot of money in Hollywood and Fogel says Hollywood’s disinterest was organised. “There was a unified front amongst the major global media companies, distributors that they were not going to touch this film,” he says. The Australian distributor Madman deserves credit for standing up.
I try never to tell readers what to see. I describe, so you can make up your own mind. In this case, because of the forces against it, I will make an exception. Just go, alright?
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