The dissident

Peter Malone MSC 3 May 2021

Challenging documentary investigating the murder of Saudi Arabian journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, Istabul, 2018.

THE DISSIDENT, US, 2020, Investigative documentary. Directed by Bryan Fogel. 119 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes)

One of the strong features of recent years is the development of the documentary as a means of investigative journalism. While television is the main outlet for these investigations, filmmakers have become more ambitious, taking up controversial issues, using big budgets for research, interviews, collection of film footage, and, ultimately, having almost two hours at their disposal to make an impact on, and challenge, an audience.

Collective, the Romanian expose of corruption in health administration in Bucharest, and reviewed on the Australian Catholics film review website earlier this year, was a worthy Academy Award nominee.

The Dissident is also worth a nomination. 

In 2018, the story behind this film made world headlines, when Saudi Arabian journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, went into the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul for documentation in preparation for his marriage to a Turkish citizen, but never came out.

The world reporting of this event led to a confusion of headlines, additions to the story, denials, admissions, mysteries concerning the number of men from Saudi Arabia at the consulate, admission of the death but variations on what happened.

American researcher, director, Bryan Fogel, has a great deal of film footage from the period to incorporate into his reconstruction of the events. He also has the sad advantage of being able to have Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, participating in the project. This certainly personalises the story along with footage of Khashoggi making speeches, photographed in various situations, highlighting the injustice of his murder.

The documentary also has the advantage of incorporating the presence of a Saudi exile, living in Canada, Omar Abdulaziz. He is interviewed and his presence in the film, the way he is photographed, edited into the narrative, seems more like a character from a spy thriller. In fact, he made friends with Khashoggi, especially when the journalist became the target of an extraordinary campaign of harassment.

While the audience is absorbing this information, there is a striking animation sequence, noting that the intrusive Twitter attack is likened to flies – and, they are visualised, along with a collage of hundreds of Arab men sitting at their computers. And, it is explained in animation, the counter-attack is named as Bees.

Among the many talking heads for the documentary are Turkish authorities, the police, politicians, giving interesting accounts of how they handled the situation. There are a number of interventions by international authorities.

The challenge to the audience is to look at how the Saudi Arabian authorities handled the fact of the murder, the accusations, arrests and subsequent trials of several of the participants in the courts. But, the film also suggests that countries around the world have been hesitant in terms of condemnations, sanctions, links with the Crown Prince and the Saudi government.

The Dissident plays as a drama as well as an investigative exploration of the events in Istanbul, the motivations behind them, and the consequences – and lack of consequences.

Madman Films
Released 22 April
Peter Malone MSC is an associate Jesuit Media