In October 2018, the world learned of the brutal murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Khashoggi had been a government insider in his home country of Saudi Arabia, but his relationship with the ruling family—and particularly Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—soured as Khashoggi became an influential advocate for free speech and human rights within the kingdom. In September 2017, fearing retaliation, he fled to the United States.
In 2018, Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, to obtain marriage papers and was ambushed by a team of operatives allegedly deployed by Prince Mohammed. As Khashoggi's fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, waited outside for him to return, the Saudi team went to work.
"The global response, the U.S. response, the U.N. response, is basically 'bad boy, we're gonna let you get away with this one,'" says Bryan Fogel, the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind the 2017 Netflix documentary Icarus.
His new film, The Dissident, out now on most major VOD platforms, contains shocking audiotapes, transcripts, and video surveillance footage of the operation that ended with Khashoggi being strangled to death and his body disposed of in several trash bags.
The documentary features damning revelations, such as the Saudi team's alleged efforts to cover up the murder after the fact by dressing a Khashoggi body double in the slain man's clothes and parading him in front of security cameras. But surveillance footage featured in The Dissident also shows the alleged body double removing his fake mustache and clothes shortly thereafter.
Using a spyware tool called Pegasus that had been loaded onto Khashoggi's phone in order to eavesdrop on his conversations with other activists, Saudi operatives allegedly discovered that he was communicating with a young dissident living in Canada named Omar Abdulaziz. According to the film, Prince Mohammed also went after Abdulaziz, attempting to lure him back to Saudi Arabia with promises of fame and fortune, and sending a rendition team after him.
Fogel says he's most passionate about seeking justice and accountability for whistleblowers, dissidents, and other victims of totalitarian governments. The film for which he won an Oscar in 2017, Icarus, provided crucial evidence on the Russian Olympics doping scandal based on revelations from the former head of Moscow's internationally certified drug-testing laboratory, Grigory Rodchenkov, who worked with Kremlin officials to implement the scheme.
The Dissident exposes widespread efforts by the Trump administration and political leaders around the world to cover up or gloss over the Saudis' alleged involvement in Khashoggi's killing. Though Fogel was fresh off an Oscar win for Icarus, he says it proved difficult to find partners willing to make his new documentary, and it was only made possible through the backing of the Human Rights Foundation.
Though the documentary premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews, it was rejected by all major distributors before being picked up by Briarcliff Entertainment. Fogel says his experience making and distributing the film has convinced him that the fight for press freedoms around the globe must be led by a grassroots movement because it won't come from governments or corporations.
"I'm not mad at them," Fogel says of the distributors who declined to take on the film. "I understand the predicament. I just wish that we, as a society, were valuing human rights and valuing stories like this."
Produced, written, and edited by Justin Monticello. Audio production by Ian Keyser.
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