By Jason Czajka
“In Saudi Arabia, having an opinion is a crime”. These are opening words spoken by Saudi activist and blogger Omar Abdulaziz in Director Bryan Fogel’s new film, The Dissident. With this one sentence, viewers are given the information needed to truly appreciate and understand the subject behind this film and why Saudi journalist and activist Jamal Khashoggi’s life was so tragically taken from him on October 2nd 2018 at the Saudi Consulate in Instabul, Turkey.
Bryan Fogel – acclaimed American film director, author, speaker, producer and human rights activist, whose previous work Icarus won the 2018 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, through his most recent effort, sheds light on the events leading up to and the subsequent cover up of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, who devoted the later part of his career to exposing various levels of corruption in the Middle East and for that, paid the ultimate price. Unlike other documentaries, I found The Dissident to play out more like a big budget political thriller, echoing films like Three Days of the Condor or Enemy of the State, with a surprising degree of heart pounding moments that helps the viewer stayed glued to the screen throughout the films 119 minute run time. Through the interviews of former colleagues like Abdulaziz and those close to both Khashoggi and the case, we follow Jamal Khashoggi through his early days as he comes to the US for his graduate studies at Indiana State University. From there Khashoggi will go on to become a reporter and foreign correspondent in various countries, including his tenure with the Washington Post. We learn of his serving with the Saudi Arabian Intelligence Community and his initial blossoming relationship with the Saudi Royal family. With the rising of power of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman and his “wolf in sheep’s clothing” relationship with the journalist through the events of the Arab Spring uprising, Khashoggi’s life eventually begins to take a drastic turn as he tirelessly works to undermine the corruption of the Saudi Regime which eventually lead to his life being tragically taken from him. Prior to his death, Khashoggi struggled with the exile that he found himself in after speaking against the Saudi Royal family. His ex- wife, his children, his family all turned against him for his actions. Jamal Khashoggi had such a deep level of information that he obtained over the span of 30 years that he was a danger to the Saudis…one they could not let slip away. Through his words and reporting, Khashoggi incited the Saudi royals to actively seek to silence him once and for all, which plays out minute by minute, from his first visit to the Saudi Consulate in Istabul to the day of the murder and the events that transpire within the walls of the consulate, all the way through to the days following his murder and the international backlash that the Saudi Arabia government faced.
As I watched the film, I couldn’t help but think of how much of the subject matter correlates to our own current political climate here in the US. We are constantly bombarded by what is referred to as “Fake News” every time we hear one of our right leaning political leaders speak. As Americans, we’re forced to make a decision about what’s real and what’s not or what is a cover up, and what is the truth. Khashoggi championed against these tactics in his own home country. At one point in the documentary, one of the interviewees comments that “In the US – you have a free voice”….Do we? Throughout the entire presidency of Donald Trump and potentially prior administrations, journalists have been indirectly silenced, or attempted to be silenced because the words they wrote did not align with the current political parties views. In my viewing of this film, I found myself fearful that we may be heading down the same path here in the US that Khashoggi saw first hand in Saudi Arabia.
The Dissident is a thrilling and exciting film, dealing with a subject matter that will surely cause, as this viewer experienced, all that view the documentary to take a pause and reexamine the tragic end to Khashoggis’ life and how it came to be. Additionally, it will also force viewers to look more introspectively at our current state of affairs in the US and how the media is viewed in our own country and the effect that this will have for the future of journalism. The film was not without its flaws however. A portion of the film follows Khashoggi’s relationship with his fiancee Hatice Cengiz. I found this focus on their relationship to be a drag on the story and while essential to understanding Khashoggi’s life in the time immediately preceding his death, too much time was devoted to their “love” story that felt out of place in the scheme of the whole documentary. A minor nit-pick in what is overall a fascinating look into the unfortunate end of an incredible individual.
The Dissident will be available on PVOD starting January 8th 2021.
Photo: Courtesy of The Dissident