Apparently, filmmaker Bryan Fogel had some trouble finding a streaming home for his latest documentary, 'The Dissident', which examines the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist in exile who wrote for The Washington Post. Even Netflix, which previously released Fogel's Academy Award-winning 'Icarus', wouldn't touch it. If that doesn't immediately arouse your interest in watching his new film, I don't know what would.
On the 2nd of October 2018, Khashoggi went to the Saudi embassy in Istanbul to procure a document pertaining to his marital status, in order to marry his fiancée, Turkish journalist Hatice Cengiz. He never came out again. The media laid siege to the embassy, demanding to see him, but eventually, the Saudis confirmed he had died on the premises. 'The Dissident' tells the whole story.
Introduced during a media interview where a cat jumps into his lap, Khashoggi immediately comes across as an amiable, good-humoured man, who believed in the integrity of objective journalism. "You can feel the humanism in him," as one of his friends says. An outspoken critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (nicknamed "MBS"), Khashoggi had left his home country and made contacts with other fellow countrymen in exile; activists and dissidents who were concerned about the concentration of power in the Crown Prince's hands, regardless of his reforms (letting women drive, bringing in music and culture, liberalising the economy, and moving against a hard line). The documentary examines Khashoggi's links with these people, especially Omar Abdulaziz, whose social media presence greatly riled Saudi authorities.
Whilst living as an exile in Canada, in conjunction with Khashoggi, Abdulaziz organised a counterattack on Saudi government-sanctioned Twitter trolls ("the flies"), with his own social media movement ("the bees"). It is here that 'The Dissident' is at its most fascinating; showing the extraordinary online battlegrounds where post-Arab Spring public opinion is shaped, and how revolutionary movements arise and can be quashed accordingly.
According to the experts interviewed in 'The Dissident', about 80% of the Saudi population is on Twitter (Khashoggi had around 1.7 million followers). And they use the service as a kind of "people's parliament", debating and defining the issues of the day. Meanwhile, in the background, a shadowy army of tech-savvy hackers launch swarms of bots, attempting to steer public opinion and hunt down objectors.
Ultimately, Abdulaziz was threatened by Saudi government figures, who imprisoned friends and family members as a result of his actions. The aftermath of Khashoggi's death left him in fear for his life, but he is still determined to speak out. So is Hatice Cengiz, whose quiet dignity and refusal to be silenced regarding what happened to her fiancée is powerful and moving.
This film truly goes to some frightening places as it documents the inner workings of political plots, the breaches of human rights/secrecy, and the consequences of truth. The brutal details of what turned out to be assassination were later revealed in grisly transcripts by Turkish intelligence (in one recording, a close ally of MBS referred to the journalist as a "sacrificial lamb"), thus in the process revealing that they routinely bug foreign embassies.
This is an eye-opening story about the frailty in freedom of speech, the role of government (and the unchecked powers they wield), and the dark tool social media has become.
At first, I was incredulous at their audacity, and couldn't help comparing Mohammed bin Salman to Putin, who has been far more discreet at distancing himself from the ruthless extinguishing of political enemies (see 'Citizen K' for further reference). However, given that anger at the Saudis from the rest of the world appears to be impotent fury, in the face of an oil stranglehold, perhaps MBS simply doesn't need to exercise the same levels of Machiavellian deniability.
The documentary seems to place the blame for America's non-action squarely on Donald Trump - we see footage of Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, either meeting with MBS and standing in front of the press to tout the billions of dollars in arms deals they're negotiating. In reality, the U.S. has quietly looked away from the Saudi's human rights abuses for material gain since World War II, when oil became a very strategic resource and Saudi Arabia had a lot of it. Trump just made this subtext explicit in a way that no administration has before. I also couldn't quite swallow the portrayal of Amazon's Jeff Bezos (a potential foreign investor) as one of the good guys, even in a case as cut and dried as this (as with Khashoggi and Abdulaziz, Bezo's phone was hacked by the notorious Pegasus technology, apparently sold to the Saudis by Israel).
This is an eye-opening story about the frailty in freedom of speech, the role of government (and the unchecked powers they wield), and the dark tool social media has become (not unlike 'The Cleaners' and 'Feels Good Man'). That last point is particularly pertinent - we see the good that social media can do here, as it gives excommunicated people the ability to rally for change (outside of the more controlled culture of Saudi Arabia) and a better home, but the film also shows just how easily manipulated social media is, and how Twitter especially has become a tool of annihilation, overwhelming negativity and even an agent of fear or silencing weapon of war.
'The Dissident' effectively stirs up anger against a state that calculated they could get away with murder, to silence someone whose opinions they found an irritation.