The Dissident

M, 117 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Dissenters, reformers, subversives. The nuance in these labels depends, of course, on where you live, and under whom. How a government behaves towards its political opponents is a window on the principles it holds dear, like no other.

Sometimes there’s just no telling how brutal a regime’s response to dissent is going to be.

Most of what we heard in the media about the disappearance of Saudi Arabian journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, columnist for The Washington Post, has been known for years now. He vanished during a visit to the Saudi Arabian embassy in Istanbul, Turkey, in October 2018.

In a sense, the film takes up where Khashoggi’s terrible fate meant he had left off

The Dissident explains the backstory to the circumstances that despatched him in a gruesome crime that even a sceptical international media perceived as outlandish, unbelievable, and horrible beyond belief.

The Dissident presents more by way of detailed explanation than further revelations.

Thanks to the need of Turkish authorities to demonstrate unequivocally that Khashoggi’s disappearance had nothing to do with them, we’ve already heard more than enough about the Saudi journalist’s final chapter.

In the narrative of this new film from American documentarian Bryan Fogel, the mystery of Khashoggi’s disappearance opens in Montreal, Canada, under a blanket of snow. It is the city where another, much younger Saudi dissident, Omar Abdulaziz hides out.

Abdulaziz, a video blogger critical of the Saudi regime, was a close associate of the late Khashoggi. The film’s director has been astute in making his film about Abdulaziz too. It’s another story of a political exile that sheds a lot of light on the circumstances around Khashoggi’s fate.

Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Jamal Khashoggi. Courtesy: Briarcliff Entertainment

The young former associate is currently one of the top influencers in Saudi Arabia, where 80% of people have a Twitter account, compared with 20% in, for example, the US. He lives in self-imposed exile, fearing for his life, while family and close friends remain in detention in the kingdom.

It is a wonder that Khashoggi didn’t heed his own advice to Abdulaziz, and keep himself beyond the reach of the Saudi regime and its defacto ruler, the crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman.

The immense trove of material that Fogel has assembled and expertly woven together demonstrates how Khashoggi was once, unbelievably, a Saudi political insider, and supporter of the regime. With MBS at the helm, some reforms underway, what could possibly be wrong?

In all, throughout the film, there are many moments that suggest Khashoggi was a good guy. He had a warm smile and the ready laugh that appeared in a clip of him when his tabby cat launched into in his lap during a television interview.

Up close, some dissidents can look remarkably impressive, principled and personable. Take former CIA contractor, the young American dissenter, former intelligence computer consultant, Edward Snowden, who leaked US classified material then fled to Russia. He was the subject of the doco, Citizenfour, a feature by Laura Poitras that released in 2014.

It seems likely that former insider Khashoggi was killed for what he might eventually say

Contained in reports from the international news media that Khashoggi was missing was poignant footage of his fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, still waiting for him outside the embassy. Here, there is brief poignant footage on CCTV of the couple holding hands in the street sometime earlier.  Her vigil outside the embassy was still going on 12 hours later.

In a sense, The Dissident takes up where Khashoggi’s terrible fate meant he left off, with the story of fellow dissident Omar Abdulaziz, and that of academic Hatice Cengiz. She says her future is now dedicated to Khashoggi. Each is, in their own way, carrying the narrative forward.

As we speak, the plight of Alexei Navalny in Russia story presents another opportunity for an activist documentary filmmaker like Fogel. But he has, however, already done a job on an Putin’s regime with his Academy Award winning feature doco of 2017, Icarus. That film exposed the systemic, State-sponsored doping long suspected in Russian competitive sport.

To the extent that documentarians are on a quest for truth, filmmaker Fogel is a brave and committed human rights activist.

His career began in performance as an actor, and, astonishingly, as a stand-up comedian. There’s absolutely no trace of any of that here.

At the end of this journey, it seems likely that former insider Khashoggi was killed for what he might eventually say rather than for articles contributed to the media to date. A high crime indeed.

First published in the Canberra Times on 20 April 2021