Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian journalist at the time working for the Washington Post, was assassinated on 2 October 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Released in the week where the international community finally admitted the Saudi Crown Prince’s involvement, Bryan Fogel’s new documentary painstakingly – and painfully – traces the moments up to and following Khashoggi’s murder.
Khashoggi was, by all accounts, one of the world’s pre-eminent journalists. As one of his closest associates tells us, Jamal personified the ideals of investigative journalism. By the end of The Dissident, the outline of Khashoggi drawn by his friends and colleagues is of the utmost integrity and a fearlessness that grew with every passing year of his career. Yet Fogel’s documentary is no puff-piece. Its first act makes no bones about the fact that Khashoggi was a journalist of the Saudi court, an exclusive club where red lines of acceptable and unacceptable subjects were drawn clearly, to which all successful Saudi journalists must belong.
Footage of Khashoggi defending Saudi Arabia’s monarchical rule may seem odd in hindsight, but it sets a baseline for Khashoggi’s growing antagonism of the state as Saudi’s Crown Prince and de facto Regent, Mohammed Bin Salman – commonly referred to as MBS – grip on the country tightens. If Khashoggi could be described as any one thing, it would be as a reluctant radical, pushed away from pragmatism into strident criticism by forces intolerable to his personal and professional integrity.
It’s telling that the film opens not with Khashoggi, but Omar Abdulaziz, the political activist who Khashoggi funded to create counter-ops against the Saudi state’s army of online propaganda trolls. Khashoggi, seen only in archival footage and spoken of in reverential tones, is a silhouette, his absence felt throughout. So it is left to Abdulaziz to be the living heart of the film. His ongoing peril in exile in Canada is keenly felt, while his profound sense of personal responsibility at Khashoggi’s death – his hacked phone alerted Saudi authorities to the extent of Khashoggi’s activities – not to mention the continued political incarceration of his brothers, weighs heavily upon him.
The details of the assassination itself are laid bare in gruesome detail. To a cynic, it is not surprising that modern states are willing to order the assassination of problematic individuals, but what is shocking here is the routine brutality with which Khashoggi’s murder and disposal were carried out. That MBS ordered the killing there can be little doubt. Fogel goes to pains to illustrate the extent of his power through remarking on his having Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos on speed-dial (whom he subsequently attacked after Bezos distanced himself in the wake of Khashoggi).
What Fogel doesn’t say – and, perhaps, doesn’t need to – is that the power of this segment is in understanding MBS’ autocratic power in relation to the economic and technological power of someone like Bezos. This interplay of power structures: economic, political, technological, are fundamentally what journalism seeks to expose. It is perhaps The Dissident’s most significant achievement that Khashoggi continues to do so even after his death.
The Dissident will be released in the UK and Ireland this March via Altitude Films. For more information visit thedissident.film