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As brazen acts of political murder go in this turbulent century, the death of Saudi-born journalist Jamal Khashoggi two years ago is one of the more chilling. Khashoggi, at the time a Washington Post columnist pushing for reforms in his homeland, entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018, to pick up documents he needed to marry Turkish PhD student Hatice Cengiz, who waited outside. When he never came back out, hours of worry turned into days of increasing press scrutiny, until it was revealed he had been tortured, killed and dismembered inside the building by men connected to Saudi Arabia’s security forces, with specific ties to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).
This year has given us two documentaries about Khashoggi’s life as an outspoken royal insider whose post-Arab Spring evolution as a critic of the regime put a target on his back. In October, Showtime put out Rick Rowley’s solemn biographical contextualization, “Kingdom of Silence,” and now comes Bryan Fogel’s energized thriller version, “The Dissident.” Fogel, who won an Academy Award for the Russian doping scandal documentary “Icarus,” has once more sunk his teeth into the story of an endangered truth-teller, although anyone familiar with the details (including his grisly end) won’t learn much that’s new. It’s still an important prism, however, through which to view Saudi Arabia’s concerted effort to be seen as a progress-minded Middle East power, and whether the campaign is a case of geopolitical bad faith.
The biggest distinction between the films is that Fogel secured access to Cengiz as a central grieving figure. We see her wandering Khashoggi’s empty apartment, hear voicemails and see texts from their time together, and watch her take a more public role in memorializing his life and seeking accountability for his murder. (In September 2020, Saudi Arabia sentenced eight men for the killing, which UN Special Rapporteur Agnès Callamard — one of Fogel’s interviewees — called “a parody of justice.”)
While the fiancée’s prominence may explain why she was conspicuously absent as an interviewee in the Showtime film, it might also be the reason Fogel doesn’t include one of the more curious details reported in “Kingdom”: that another woman claimed to have secretly wed Khashoggi earlier that year. Though a certain moral complexity shadowed Khashoggi — particularly his ever-morphing brand of Saudi patriotism — this was perhaps one element of his personal life Fogel considered too inconvenient for a more martyr-centric approach. (He also leaves out one of the more fascinating parts of Khashoggi’s media rise in Saudi Arabia: knowing the young Osama bin Laden from his time as a reporter covering the Afghanistan war.)
More central to Fogel’s highly charged portrait of a silenced reformer is his other primary interviewee, Canada-based Saudi Arabian video blogger Omar Abdulaziz, whose friendship with Khashoggi inspired the young activist to launch a social media counter-narrative aimed at neutralizing Salman’s savvy deploying of a Twitter troll army to squelch criticism and tarnish enemies. Fogel convincingly suggests that word of Khashoggi’s financial support of Abdulaziz reaching MBS — via specific hacking/surveillance technology that the movie rightly positions as a threat to dissent everywhere — was the final straw that precipitated planning the murder.
Some of Fogel’s techniques speak more to the slick state of advocacy docs these days than to what would most effectively tell the story, from the overworked score and editing to some regrettable computer animation that briefly feels like one has entered a video game simulation. Tyranny and its effects are no video game, but “The Dissident” overall retains the impact of its alarming narrative, never more so than when we’re reminded of how much support President Trump gave MBS despite his own intelligence agencies’ conclusion that the crown prince ordered the hit on Khashoggi. One can only hope the future won’t see a preference for arms deals over principles of human decency.
Rated: PG-13, for disturbing/violent material
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Playing: Starts Dec. 25 in limited release where theaters are open; available Jan. 8 on PVOD