For a period in 2018, one international incident dominated headlines for weeks: The murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey. With many world leaders — with one notable exception — convinced that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the killing, the situation brought to light the scary and brutal nature of the Saudi Arabian government.
The incident was so significant that it has inspired not one but two documentaries by Oscar-winning filmmakers. The first, Kingdom of Silence, debuted on Showtime in October 2020, and now the second, The Dissident, is premiering on video on demand. Directed by Bryan Fogel (Icarus), the film is a sweeping look at not just the events surrounding Khashoggi’s murder, but his life as an expatriate of Saudi Arabia and what could have been inciting events leading to his assassination.
Fogel frames much of the film through another Saudi journalist, Omar Abdulaziz, who’s living in exile in Canada. Through him, Fogel attempts to show the threat to people like him and Khashoggi who dare to question the Saudi government, having to be constantly on the move and on alert for anything that might be awry.
One of the most notable aspects of the film is the level of access that Fogel and his team were able to get. For unknown reasons, a recording from inside the Saudi consulate captured everything that happened the fateful day Khashoggi went there to get a marriage license for him and his fiancée, Hatice Cengiz. Fogel uses both the recording and a transcript in a highly effective manner, sometimes going into excruciating detail.
The film as a whole plays out almost like a spy thriller, except because it’s real life, the stakes are much higher. Using interviews with Abdulaziz, Cengiz, a Turkish police captain, and more, Fogel examines Khashoggi’s life and actions. Khashoggi was a respected journalist who never shied away from trying to tell the truth about his country, but the level of criticism he expressed about them in the weeks and months before his killing may have been his downfall.
In addition to being a story about this particular incident, the film also serves as a warning about the devastating impact Saudi Arabia, which has essentially unlimited wealth because of its oil reserves, could have on the rest of the world. Thanks to contracts with U.S., they have a high-powered military, and Abdulaziz details a sophisticated cyber war they’ve engaged in with anyone who falls out of favor with them, up to and including such high-profile people as Amazon CEO/Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos.
The film, despite showing without a doubt what actually happened to Khashoggi, offers no easy answers. The best viewers can do is marvel at the continued bravery of people like Abdulaziz, Cengiz, and others who continue to stand up to the Saudi Arabian government despite the lengths they’re willing to go to punish such dissidents.
The Dissident is playing in select theaters and available via video on demand.