The brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 was arguably one of the most damning scandals to envelop the powerful crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, aka MBS.
Bryan Fogel, best known for his 2017 Oscar-winning documentary Icarus, now tackles another international incident of ostensibly more geopolitical significance in The Dissident.
Briarcliff Entertainment released The Dissident in select theaters on Dec. 25. It will be available on PVOD beginning Jan. 8.
Khashoggi’s grisly murder at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, where a “kill team” allegedly sent by MBS ambushed Khashoggi to strangle and dismember him, was extensively documented in the press. However, Fogel’s deep access to Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, Montreal-based Saudi activist Omar Abdulaziz, Turkish authorities and other key players provide more compelling insights to the incident.
Gaining the confidence of his sources was a months-long process that involved repeated visits to the Turkish capital and to Montreal without filming a single frame, said Fogel. Ultimately, it was Icarus — which began as a personal film about steroids but changed gears when his source became the inadvertent whistleblower behind Russia’s state-sponsored doping scheme — that made them trust him.
“They saw how we protected Grigory [Rodchenkov, the whistleblower] and continue to help and protect him even to this day, while he remains in hiding,” he said. Their confidence in Fogel led them to share audio recordings, personal information and crucial evidence with him.
For Fogel, telling the story right hinged on three vital factors. First was securing the participation of Turkish authorities and their willingness to provide information that had not been made public. Second was gaining access to Cengiz, who was the emotional linchpin through whose eyes we would get to know Khashoggi as a person. And, third, enlisting the support of Abdulaziz, “a living, breathing legacy of the work that Jamal was seeking to do,” said Fogel.
He draws inspiration from the likes of Christopher Nolan and Paul Greengrass, who employ classic cinematic techniques to build tension through the use of sound, music, graphics and design to engage the audience.
“If you can engage audiences through the storytelling, those great cinematic techniques will shine through and make people care about the story and its characters, and if they do that, then perhaps there lies the ability to bring about change,” Fogel said.
The director is proud to point out that five months after Icarus came out, it was actually cited by the IOC when they banned Russia from participating in the Winter Olympics.
Whether The Dissident will have such an impact remains to be seen. Fogel hopes that shining a brighter light on Khashoggi’s case will eventually bring about the release of Abdulaziz’s brothers and friends along with thousands of political prisoners in Saudi Arabia, and more importantly, some form of accountability and justice for Khashoggi.
A glimmer of hope lies with President-elect Biden who, on the second anniversary of Khashoggi’s death, pledged to re-assess U.S.-Saudi relations. “The question now remains on whether he will do it,” Fogel said.