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‘The Dissident’ Asks Audiences Not to Forget Jamal Khashoggi

March 4, 2021
5 min read time

Many are familiar with Jamal Khashoggi based on his headline-making murder, when Khashoggi went to procure a marriage license from his embassy for Saudi Arabia in Istanbul, Turkey. Once he stepped foot inside, he never re-appeared again. While The Dissident digs deep into what happened inside the embassy and why, it explores beyond that moment to be about Khashoggi himself, the lives he touched, and the legacy he leaves behind. 

Filmmaker Bryan Fogel came to Kahshoggi’s story as did many others, through hearing about him in the news. But when he looked past the headlines, Fogel knew he had to help tell Kashoggi’s story: “As I dove in to look at this story and then decided to take it on, I felt — and still feel — like I got to know who this person was. If he was alive today, perhaps we would be friends. I think we’d have a lot to talk about, as I share his values, and the work he committed his life to doing.”

Khashoggi fought to tell the truth no matter how much it put his life in danger. He found salvation in writing when he sought asylum in America after fearing he’d said too much in Saudi Arabia, which is controlled by an authoritarian regime led by Mohammed bin Salman (often referred to as MBS). Khashoggi had to give up his life, his family, and his country to be able to speak his mind. 

The documentary makes it clear Fogel also values the truth with his incredible achievements in the investigation of Khashoggi's murder. Both men are brilliant writers, valuing the power of the written word. Fogel’s writing process (in collaboration with his co-writer Mark Monroe) involves much scripting. Fogel states that after the shooting process, he and Monroe will spend time with the transcripts of their work and build out a story map.

"Our beat sheet and story map will in many cases follow a three-act structure. There is a script for The Dissident that looks much like a feature script.” Fogel stresses that ultimately the story is tantamount, and the masterful documentary maker is excellent at telling Khashoggi’s story through those who knew him best. 

Omar Abdulaziz is one of Fogel’s key characters in The Dissident. A Khashoggi protégé, Abdulaziz is also a Saudia Arabian dissident who sought asylum in Canada after a threat on his life in Saudi Arabia caused his father to insist he leave for fear of seeing his son end up behind bars — or much worse. Khashoggi and Abdulaziz connected through their use of Twitter to speak out about the abuse of power led by MBS. Khashoggi financed Abdulaziz’s efforts to defend dissident voices on Twitter, as the Saudi royals finance Twitter troll farms to silence any critics of the current regime. Abdulaziz was seeing progress at the time of Kashoggi's death with what he called “the bees” that he used to attack the MBS-financed trolls, whom he called “the flies.” Abdulaziz told Khashoggi if he kept up with his support of the Twitter efforts, he would no longer be just a journalist, but a dissident in his own right. Later, Abdulaziz realized his phone was likely bugged and Saudi authorities were likely tracking the effort on Twitter to stop the suppression.

As Abdulaziz continues his work today, including an almost daily YouTube show, "the bees" are still hard at work to tamp down outspoken voices. Fogel confirms, “I am constantly getting messages from Omar, where he is showing me how they have continued to manipulate the platform. They (the bees) recently found a way to hack the algorithm and get their topics trending and change the wording of topics that were trending. Omar has shown me many examples of this, and Twitter has been made aware, but they’re facing — all of these social platforms are continuously facing — a situation that there is no easy solution to. How do you have a platform where people can go and have freedom of thought and opinion and simultaneously protect that platform from bad things and false narratives? We’ve seen it with Facebook and Twitter here in the States and with Trump this January. The platforms finally took action — this is creating violence and we have to do something about it," says Fogel.

"I think this is a constant thing we will continue to deal with, but the film shows the lengths to which an authoritarian government will go to suppress freedom of speech and create a false narrative to elicit fear.”

In Saudi Arabia, 80% of the country uses Twitter, making the fight to get the truth heard an extra important one as it’s one of the few uncensored outlets in the traditional sense. While The Dissident is full of shocking moments, perhaps one of the more unsettling ones is when Abdulaziz receives a call from his brother Ahmad. Ahmad has served jail time for Abdulaziz’s activism, and he pleads with his brother to stop speaking out. Abdulaziz recently told The Guardian: “They were trying to use my brothers and friends to silence me,” he says. “Jamal was still alive then. I asked him. I said: ‘What do you think about that?’ And he said: ‘Listen, if you stop now and give in, they will only go harder [against dissidents].’ So, Abdulaziz continues to live with constant threats and the fortunate protection of the Canadian government. 

As for more accountability for Khashoggi’s murder, The Dissident makes a case for not letting the crime languish. In never before heard audio, Khashoggi’s last words are uttered under shocking duress. Fogel was granted access to the previously unreleased transcripts and audio through embedding himself in Istanbul and getting to know the investigators there.

This investigation was incredibly important to Turkey,” he stresses. “The attack was an affront to the government in so forth that Saudi planned to blame the murder and frame the murder on Turkey. Their participation in the film is extraordinary. It took months and months of trust-building between me and my team, and essentially the Turkish authorities and government, to let them know I wasn’t there to disparage Turkey. I was there to try to craft this story, and without their participation, I couldn’t do that... They decided to partake in a very meaningful way. The transcript is truly exclusive to the film, there is so much that is exclusive to the film, and that came from what was long and extraordinary trust building.”

The transcript and Fogel’s portrayal of it is haunting, making Khashoggi’s death feel present, tangible and urgent to address. “They had not, and still have not, publicly released it. I implored them to provide that transcript, and didn’t see how we could effectively tell the story of what happened to Jamal cinematically without it. We thought if we could have that transcript, we could turn that into a character. It felt essential in the film to bring it to life, hopefully doing it in a Hitchcockian way, using sound and light and texture and motion graphics and all of these things that go into that sequence to bring the audience the feeling they are there… It was an extremely pivotal moment when they decided to release it to my team.”

While some of those held responsible for Khashoggi’s death have been arrested and tried (and since pardoned by Khashoggi’s sons), Abdulaziz (and the United Nations) believe that justice will not be served until MBS himself is investigated. During our interview, Fogel was optimistic that the Biden administration will take a different view to Saudi Arabia than the Trump administration had. “The Biden administration is re-examining U.S.—Saudi relations by releasing this report, and is looking at a re-set in the relationship.”

Many have since been surprised that a U.S.-released report on the Khashoggi murder had unexpected redacted names and no consequences for the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. Instead, the White House has slapped sanctions on MBS’s security detail and imposed visa restrictions on a group of people believed to be targeting dissidents abroad. Ultimately, it seems Biden’s policy on Saudi and U.S. relations is in a state of evolution. Regardless, this makes The Dissident even more timely and an incredibly powerful watch.

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