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How a thriller documentary about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi felt the chilling effect of Saudi oil dollars

Filmmaker Bryan Fogel speaks to TheJournal.ie about his new film at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival.

Source: Briarcliff Entertainment/YouTube

A PARTIALLY REDACTED report released by President Joe Biden’s administration last week stated, for the first time, that the US believes Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the murder of Jamal Khashoggi

The brutal and gruesome murder of the Saudi journalist shocked the world in 2018, but the statement that bin Salman sanctioned it will not be a shock to many. 

Bryan Fogel’s powerful new documentary The Dissident also makes it clear, with the filmmaker delving deep into Turkish intelligence information to paint a troubling picture of the murder.

Khashoggi entered the Saudi embassy in Istanbul to get the papers he required to marry his fiancée, Turkish journalist Hatice Cengiz. He had been assured that he was safe in the embassy of his homeland, but nothing could have been further from the truth. 

A 15-strong squad of hit men had been dispatched from the Saudi kingdom. Khashoggi wouldn’t leave the embassy alive and the documentary details how the consulate had ordered 30kg of meat to be cooked to mask the smell of his body being incinerated. 

Cengiz waited outside for her future husband to come out, but faced the trauma of accepting that he had been murdered and dealing with a global news story crashing down on her. 

Fogel, the Oscar-winning director of Icarus, approached Cengiz and was invited to Istanbul about a month after the murder. 

At that point he didn’t bring a film crew. Instead, he explains to TheJournal.ie, he was there firstly to speak person-to-person with the grieving woman and secondly to build trust with the Turkish authorities that would ultimately provide him with the arsenal of smoking guns for the documentary. 

He describes being there at the time as “exhausting”, but that after getting to know Cengiz he felt more and more impassioned about telling the story of Khashoggi. 

“She was grieving, she was in disbelief. I don’t think any of us can ever imagine what something like that would feel like. It’s just unfathomable.” 

I was looking at it from the angle of being a personal storyteller. That was the story of Omar, the story of Hatice. Then it was about gaining access to the Turkish government and their evidence, to tell a story that was going to be unique, that had not been told by news organisations. That process was very slow, building trust, embedding for months. 

The ‘Omar’ Fogel speaks about is Omar Abdulaziz, a young Saudi who lives in exile in Canada and who both was and is a powerful online critic of the Saudi regime. 

While Khashoggi was for most of his life a relatively moderate critic of Saudi Arabia, a man who used his experience and nuance in the pages of the Washington Post, Abdulaziz used Youtube and Twitter. 

His reach numbers in the billions of views and he and Khashoggi became allies, something bin Salman either feared or coveted or both. 

The documentary details an online information war between pro-Saudi ‘flies’ and the ‘bees’ Abdulaziz fostered to counter the State propaganda. 

These elements weave together strands of espionage, technology and old-fashioned ‘good versus evil’, with Fogel explaining his goal was that it played that way to audiences. 

The film was crafted as a kind of feature thriller. It’s got all the cinematic devices that you would find in a Paul Greengrass film or in a David Fincher movie. And that was very, very purposeful, because I wanted to see hopefully that we could keep audiences on the edge of your seat.

“And if we were successful in doing that, I feel like there was, or is, a real possible outcome for change, which we are starting to see with the incoming Biden administration.”

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Fogel references the change in tone the new administration has sounded, noting that he feels that Saudi Arabia has been “successful overall in whitewashing the murder”. 

“There’s a lot of money and money in many regards equals power,” he says. 

The filmmaker himself has felt the chilling effect this vast wealth can have, with the documentary being a hit at Sundance Film Festival and yet failing to find a top tier distributor. 

His previous movie Icarus, about Russian state-sponsored doping, was distributed by Netflix and went on to win the Academy Award. This time neither Netflix nor other streaming giants like Amazon have picked up The Dissident. 

Going to Sundance he admits being “concerned” that the film wouldn’t be bought but hoped the power of the story would shine through the oil dollars. 

“I believed heading into Sundance that the strength of the filmmaking, the critical reviews that the film received and my involvement as an applauded filmmaker would ultimately win out and that we would find a global distributor for the film.

“I was wrong, with big money and big power these corporations have shown themselves that they’re not going to do anything to rock the applecart in regards to their relationship with the Kingdom and their business interests with the king.”

Despite this, the movie has been acclaimed critically and is one to watch for prizes in the upcoming awards seasons. 

The Dissident will be screened as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Festival on 11 March at 4pm. Tickets cost €8.50 and once the content becomes available you have 72 hours to start watching. Visit Diff.ie to see the entire festival programme and book tickets. 

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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