Jamal Khashoggi and the new film humanising the man behind the headlines
The Saudi journalist’s death shocked the world, but the fight for justice continues says Bryan Fogel, director of The Dissident, a shocking documentary outlining the life and horrifying death of Jamal Khashoggi
Behind the headlines is the tragedy of a man, the fiancée he left behind, Hatice Cengiz, and her tireless fight for justice.
This story is dramatically told in The Dissident, a new documentary charting how Khashoggi went from being a trusted insider of the Saudi government to one of its biggest critics – and one targeted for assassination.
“Jamal’s murder was able to happen because the Saudis didn’t believe that there would be true accountability, and there wasn’t,” says director Bryan Fogel.
Fogel’s previous documentary, Icarus, told the unbelievable inside story of the Russian doping scandal and won him an Oscar. He brings the same commitment and consideration to the even more incredulous story of the life and horrifying death of the 59-year-old Washington Post correspondent.
In uncompromising detail, Fogel’s film outlines what happened when Khashoggi walked into the consulate and, minutes later, was killed. He had access to footage from the Turkish police’s forensic search of the meeting room he was taken to. He has the full, secretly recorded transcripts of his murder, the killers laughing as they sawed up the body.
While this was happening, Cengiz was waiting for Khashoggi outside. He had only gone to the consulate to pick up papers required for their wedding.
“[The Saudis] didn’t believe that they were going to be caught,” Fogel says. “All the measures that they were taking, although they were poorly orchestrated, were designed to get away with it – a body double, sweeping the conflict for bugs two days ahead, dismembering his body, cutting and burning it in an oven. These were all attempts to vanish someone and get away with the crime.”
But the consulate was bugged. Though nobody knows by whom.
“You’d need to ask the Turks about that,” Fogel says. “Who knows if it was a Turkish listening device, it could have been another country’s and they could have handed it over to the Turks. I mean, we don’t know. But the point is that it was there, and his murder was captured.”
And if it hadn’t been?
“There would have been a lot of questions. There probably would have been the belief that he’d been renditioned back to Saudi, but there would have not been conclusive evidence of the murder.
“If this was a different country that didn’t have hundreds of billions, trillions of dollars of wealth, you would have seen different actions taken,” Fogel says. “I’m not a politician, but measures that pressure the kingdom to release political prisoners, change their tactics of suppressing freedom of speech – that’s what economic sanctions are about.”
The already dense plot thickens when it comes to the motive. Khashoggi was working with another exiled Saudi activist Omar Abdulaziz and donated $5,000 to help fund a team of dissident social media influencers. The Saudis learned about this after hacking into Abdulaziz’s phone.
In another bizarre twist, it was the same spyware that Mohammed bin Salman himself sent via a personal WhatsApp message to hack and attempt to humiliate Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Bezos happens to own The Washington Post.
This is a trying time to be in the truth to power business
More than just a single, tragic event, Khashoggi’s story is connected to freedom of speech and expression in the Middle East and what has happened in the wider region over the 10 years since the Arab Spring.
“Authoritarian regimes in the region saw that social media had the power to ignite revolutions,” Fogel says. “Saudi Arabia helped to fund opposition to the Arab Spring to keep the regimes in power. They also got very wise to the power of social media and developed their own engine to suppress freedom of information and freedom of speech.”
Fogel’s film itself has been a target. In another botched job,the Saudi government’s digital minions have posted thousands of negative reviews of The Dissident.
“They’ve been working hard,” Fogel laughs. “Their little flies are spending lots of time trying to get the film bad IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes reviews. Luckily, not a single critic agrees with them.
“It’s actually humorous, especially when you see the film and understand exactly what they do. You see the rudimentary workings of it, just a hack organisation.”
Though he sees the funny side, The Dissident has struggled to find international distributers willing to risk alienating one of their markets.
“This is a trying time to be in the truth to power business. Global businesses are interested in growth, and growth comes from a global marketplace,” he says.
“What the film clearly shows is that business interests and money conquer all. So the fact that the big streaming services are choosing not to distribute the film across all of their subscriber base is disappointing. It’s also not shocking.”
The film aimed to raise awareness of the failure of the global community to hold anyone to account for Khashoggi’s killing. The CIA report will further add pressure, but this goes beyond that one injustice.
Activists like Omar Abdulaziz, still in exile in Montreal, live under constant threats on their life. Two of Omar’s brothers and 23 of his friends are currently being held without charge, just to send him a message.
Human rights abuses and political oppression are happening in Saudi right now, Fogel adds.
“As the film ends, there’s a zero resolution and there’s been zero change. Thousands of Saudi human rights activists are in prison.
“There’s been no change in policy. It continues to be a repressive authoritarian regime.”
The Dissident’s UK premiere will be online as part of Glasgow Film Festival on March 6.
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