The Dissident review: Bryan Fogel’s Jamal Khashoggi documentary is captivating, but often plays out like a spy thriller

Bryan Fogel's pressing documentary The Dissident tells us that Jamal Khashoggi was targeted for dissent, but hardly probes into the material of that dissent.

Srikanth Srinivasan April 04, 2021 10:49:14 IST
The Dissident review: Bryan Fogel’s Jamal Khashoggi documentary is captivating, but often plays out like a spy thriller

Poster of The Dissident

Languages: Arabic | Turkish | English

On 2 October 2018, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi went to the KSA embassy in Istanbul to obtain documents that would enable him to marry his Turkish fiancée, who was waiting outside the building. He did not return.

A noted critic of the Saudi crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s (MBS) policies, Khashoggi was choked to death in the conference room of the embassy. His body was dismembered and reportedly burnt in a barbecue pit over three days. In February this year, the White House declassified a report that stated in no uncertain terms that the grisly murder was carried out by intelligence agents acting under the express approval of the crown prince. US president Joe Biden has, however, refused to pass any sanction against MBS for the killing.

American filmmaker Bryan Fogel’s persuasive, pressing new documentary The Dissident, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year, sticks so closely to these hard facts that it seems it has no other ambition than to state them as they are. It’s a worthy goal, especially in view of all the hand-wringing that political leaders across the so-called free world have been engaged in over the matter. Torch-bearers of free speech like the UK and France have loudly decried the murder, but shown themselves unwilling to do anything that will impact their arms trade with Saudi Arabia. The Arab world predictably rallied behind the kingdom, while countries like India and Pakistan, far from condemning the killing, welcomed an investment-bearing MBS with red carpet in 2019. This bending of a country’s foundational values under a heavy pursere calls Groucho Marx’s quip: “Those are my principles, and if you don't like them, I have others.”

The Dissident review Bryan Fogels Jamal Khashoggi documentary is captivating but often plays out like a spy thriller

File photo of Jamal Khashoggi. AP

Fogel’s film synthesizes the testimonies of Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, his friends and colleagues at the Washington Post, the Turkish officials who discovered and publicized the murder and other Saudi dissidents exiled across the world, especially Montreal-based video Omar Abdulaziz. In doing so, it offers us a picture of the journalist’s personal and political situation during the weeks leading up to his visit to the embassy and of the fallout of the assassination in the weeks after. We also get a glimpse into the scope of Saudi intelligence operations, from large-scale computer farms that troll dissidents and set the narrative on social media to invest in technology that infiltrates mobile gadgets of targets across the world, allegedly even that of MBS’s buddy Jeff Bezos.

The Dissident is not an analytical work; Fogel’s approach has little to do with either the meditative formalism of a Laura Poitras or the long-sighted storytelling of an Adam Curtis. He holds the viewer captive to the here and the now, and his film is largely an ‘operative’ text that seeks to convince and call to action. To this end, he uses all the means at his disposal to hold the viewer’s attention. Several stretches of The Dissident have the licked finish of an international thriller: spectacular drone images of megapolises dotted with skyscrapers, a musical score that ratches up the tension, and an accelerated style of editing that weaves different kinds of testimonies to create a sense of inevitability to the events. A description of warring IT-operations is animated literally as a colony of dissident bees taking on an army of Saudi flies.

You can’t deny that this method is effective. After all, the film (nearly) pulls off the impossible by making us root for Jeff Bezos. But there are stretches where this ends-over-means approach irks. It’s one thing to dramatize Abdulaziz’s media operations in Montreal, but to have a camera wistfully track away from Cengiz as she stands outside the Saudi embassy borders on distasteful. There are multiple moments where we don’t know if what we are looking at is fictional re-enactment or documentary footage, for instance, the low-fi visuals of people talking in cafés that accompany audio recordings, or pictures supposedly from Saudi Arabia’s social media war-room—images that seem suspended in the realm of alternative facts. As the then-president Donald Trump said of Khashoggi’s killing, “Will anybody really know?”

The Dissident review Bryan Fogels Jamal Khashoggi documentary is captivating but often plays out like a spy thriller

The Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, left, with journalist Jamal Khashoggi, right, in The Dissident. Photograph: Altitude

The Dissident is so focused on excavating and arranging facts that it seems to have come into being on its own. And its mission is so obviously vital that it seems decadent to talk of its artistic construction. While its accent on raw detail renders the film almost a-thematic, there is a motif to be discerned: the gradual redrawing of the contours of political affiliation that can shift the ground one is standing on. The film lets us know that Khashoggi was not always a heretic; that he was, in fact, an insider in the House of Saud, who represented a happy face of the regime. Even when he was critical, we are told, he was seen as a well-meaning reformist who believed in MBS’s vision. But with his reactions to the Arab Spring and concomitant Saudi-sponsored counter-revolutions, it appears as though he would fall lower and lower in the eyes of the kingdom, even though he continued to nurture the same love for his country.

The film regularly tells us that Khashoggi was targeted for his dissent, but it hardly probes into the material of that dissent. This is important. There is a valid argument to be made somewhere that reducing a complex journalist to a martyr for free speech is a liberal contrivance that neglects the breadth of his life’s work. But Fogel’s refusal to delve into the details of Khashoggi’s criticism of the crown prince is a wholly defensible stance. The Dissident is a film about principles for which any discussion about how Khashoggi may have ‘provoked’ the Saudi government is already a concession. For Fogel’s film, dissent is an end value in itself, worthy of being protected and celebrated irrespective of its content. As such, it wouldn’t want to have anything to do with realpolitik. It is, after all, international realpolitik that has deemed that pursuing justice for Khashoggi comes at too high an economic price.

The Dissident is currently screening in the Virtual Viewing Room of the Dharamshala International Film Festival.

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