“The Dissident” – “The Washington Post” journalist Jamal Khashoggi perished in a Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, and the details of his murder are brutal.
So sick that this critic won’t delve into the ugly specifics. Well, director Bryan Fogel’s documentary does explain the man’s end in frank, grisly terms, but he thankfully spares his audience from photos or audio recordings. Fogel makes a similar choice as director Werner Herzog did in “Grizzly Man” (2005), a film about the late Timothy Treadwell and his demise through the unfortunate close contact with an Alaskan grizzly.
It doesn’t mean that “The Dissident” isn’t a bear of a film, because it is. Fogel pulls back the curtain of a secretive, protective Saudi Arabian government and the shadowy happenstances behind Jamal’s slaying. It’s a documentary with wide-reaching moving parts at the highest levels of power, but it also devotes about a third of its 119-minute runtime towards Khashoggi’s personal life, including his loving relationship with his fiancée Hatice Cengiz.
Who was this man?
We discover him through this exploratory, investigative journalism doc that sheds light on a pitch-black tragedy.
Before October 2018, chances are that you never heard of Jamal Khashoggi, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have a stellar career. Educated in the U.S. at Indiana State University, Jamal returned home to Saudi Arabia to become a journalist. However, the Saudi government is run by the royal family, and with no elections, it’s not exactly a democracy. In fact, according to Google, Saudi Arabia is “the seventh-most authoritarian regime among the 167 countries rated” on 2010 Democracy index (via “The Economist”).
So, a free press will only work if the King ignores (or openly accepts without retribution) negative stories about his rule. Like any ethical newsperson, Mr. Khashoggi printed the truth but also remained close with the royals; however, when his columns became more westernized or liberal, he suddenly clashed with the conservative, top-down reign.
Friend becomes foe.
Ultimately, these fundamental disagreements cost this reporter and outspoken commentator – who moved to the U.S. in 2017 – his life. The initial assumptions were that the Saudi government had a hand in Khashoggi’s homicide, and director Bryan Fogel donned his magnifying glass – in the form of several tools from his in-depth-reporting toolbox – to discover the truth. Fogel’s doc whisks us around the world to his “Post” colleagues (like acclaimed reporter David Ignatius), to Turkey at the scene of the crime, and even Montreal, Quebec, where we meet Jamal’s Saudi friend Omar Abdulaziz. Omar is a blogger with a like-minded view of their home nation, and his social media expertise expanded his mate’s reach, which only aggravated the strife with the regime.
This grave narrative moves swiftly as technology, death threats, information agencies, and intricate Saudi politics all play roles. It includes plenty of B-roll, old interviews, photos, and stories about Jamal as a human being. Don’t be too impressed with the doc’s structure and approach because – from that perspective – “The Dissident” is a standard affair, but Fogel tells an invaluable story of a brave man who spoke truth to power.
Despite the successful attempt to silence Jamal, his memory will live forever.
⭐⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Image credits: Orwell Productions; Trailer credits: Briarcliff Entertainment