Documentary filmmaker Bryan Fogel has become expert at telling complex stories of international intrigue.
He won the Oscar for his 2017 documentary Icarus, which blew the lid off Russia’s sports doping conspiracy. In his new film, The Dissident, he turns an investigative lens onto the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, allegedly on the orders of the kingdom’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
“Following Icarus, I had actively been trying to figure out…what [my] next story was going to be,” Fogel tells Deadline. “I was looking for something that was going to involve taking on a dictatorship or authoritarian regime, fake news, false information, freedom of speech, freedom of press…Something that had…these thriller elements that was what drove Icarus.”
The Dissident, now playing in select theaters and releasing on VOD platforms today, sheds new light on why Khashoggi was killed and how his assassination was carried out. Fogel obtained the full transcript of Turkey’s secret audio recording of the gruesome murder and he sat down with key Turkish officials who investigated the crime.
“Every one of those interviews I was able to get…are still exclusive to the world,” he notes. “Nobody has got those guys talking on camera anywhere else, and nobody [else] has the [full] transcript.”
The Dissident takes viewers inside the room where Khashoggi was suffocated and then dismembered by a “kill team” sent by Saudi Arabia. It suggests senior officials back in Saudi Arabia may have watched the killing live through a video feed, and reports Khashoggi’s remains were transported to the consul’s residence where they may have been burned in a tandoori oven. The findings are supported by Turkish police video and the accounts of investigators Fogel interviewed.
“Clearly the [Turkish] president [Recep Tayyip Erdoğan] had to bless those interviews and decisions to release that footage and the material, because that couldn’t have come from anyone else,” the director asserts. “But that decision was made through the months of trust that was built, that they saw that I was not there to take on other political issues.”
Fogel landed another exclusive, spending time over many months with Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, who became a strong moral presence in the film. Khashoggi had gone with Cengiz to the consulate the day of his death, seeking a document that would allow them to get married.
“She was just in terrible grief, but she invited me to come to Istanbul,” Fogel shares. “I said to her, ‘Look, I’m not here for a day. I’m not here for a week. I’m not here for a month. I’m here for as long as this takes to tell the story of your love, and to help you to bring justice and accountability for Jamal.’”
By the time Cengiz and Khashoggi had met he was already on the outs with his country’s rulers. His transformation from insider with access to the corridors of power in Riyadh to pariah in self-exile had been a remarkable one, fueled by his increasing willingness to criticize the kingdom’s policies. Khashoggi deplored Saudi Arabia’s role squashing the Arab Spring, which had brought hope of democratic reforms across many Arab countries, but posed a threat to Saudi Arabia’s ruling elite. He also took a contrarian view of Mohammed bin Salman, a rising political force in the kingdom who initially earned praise as a reformer from many Western observers.
“Jamal was going, ‘No, no, no. Look, people. Look behind the curtain. This guy is imprisoning people. He’s cracking down. He’s ruthless,’” Fogel explains. “‘While the public persona might be that this guy is cool, kind, and evolved, the real story behind this is different.’”
Khashoggi decamped for the U.S. in 2017, becoming a columnist for the Washington Post. The Dissident also reveals he made contact around that time with another Saudi dissident, Omar Abdulaziz, who had gone into exile in Montreal, Quebec. The film says Khashoggi became increasingly supportive of efforts by Abdulaziz to disrupt Saudi disinformation activities.
“Omar set up…an army, basically, in Montreal to combat the Saudi trolls,” notes producer/cinematographer Jake Swantko. “We saw him as a key person in this story to tell a very human element of the advocacy and ultimately the dissidence of Jamal.”
The documentary suggests Saudi intelligence agents got wind of Khashoggi’s support of Abdulaziz (by hacking the latter’s phone), which may have become yet another motive for wanting the journalist dead. There are other reasons Bin Salman, known as MBS, allegedly orchestrated Khashoggi’s assassination.
“He was also, I think, such a threat to the kingdom and to MBS, because here was a guy who had two million Twitter followers, had been considered a respected journalist that was read by millions of people, and had a global standing as somebody who was an honest voice…and that certainly was dangerous to Mohammed bin Salman,” Fogel maintains. “He was also speaking against or concerned about the policies of President Trump and the relationship that he viewed between President Trump and Mohammed bin Salman.”
The Dissident is one of two films about Khashoggi with Oscar ambitions. The other is Kingdom of Silence, directed by Emmy winner Rick Rowley. Rowley’s film aired on Showtime, while the distributor of The Dissident is Briarcliff Entertainment. Fogel indicates he shopped The Dissident to Netflix, which released Icarus, and to other streaming platforms, without success.
“There has been, I would call it a concerted attempt to silence this film,” he charges. “Not a single global streamer or major global distribution company had the appetite for this film. Not a one. Because they’re all willing, or are doing, or want to do business with the Saudis.”
Icarus was cited as evidence in a report issued by the International Olympic Committee explaining its decision to ban Russia from the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. The director sees the potential for The Dissident to make waves too, holding the powerful to account for Khashoggi’s murder.
“I’m hoping the takeaway from this film will be much like the Arab Spring, that people take action…to call on governments and members of the G20 to basically go, ‘Hey, this is not acceptable. We have to, as a society, as humans on this planet, hold these sort of crimes and violations accountable.’ Because if not, what are we doing?” he questions. “I’m optimistic that as people see this film, hopefully just like they did with Icarus, that they can bring meaningful change.”