‘The Dissident’ follows multiple characters, timelines, historic pit stops, and individual perspectives
  • Release Date: 08/01/2021
  • Cast: Omar Abdulaziz, Fahrettin Altun, John O. Brennan, Hatice Cengiz, Anthony J. Ferrante, Abdulhamit Gul
  • Director: Bryan Fogel
  • Rating: 4/5 (4 out of 5 Stars)

October 2, 2018: 60-year-old The Washington Post Columnist Jamal Khashoggi enters the Saudi Arabian consulate to complete formalities that would clear the path for his marriage to Hatice Cengiz, his new-found love in Istanbul. He is never seen or heard from ever again. Hatice Cengiz, who had accompanied him to the Consulate, is left pacing the road where Jamal had asked her to wait for him. When she realizes that things might not have gone well for Khashoggi inside, she raises alarm and within days, the attention of the world media is diverted and transfixed on the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. They all want answers on the whereabouts of Jamal Khashoggi. Days pass and the Saudis keep issuing conflicting statements about what had happened but never accept any wrongdoings. 

After 13 days, they allow the first Turkish investigation team to enter the premises. It is only after this investigation that the gloomy fact starts to dawn on one and all that Jamal Khashoggi might have been assassinated inside the consulate and his body might have been dismembered and disposed of. Bryan Fogel’s (Icarus, 2017) documentary, ‘The Dissident’ follows multiple characters, timelines, historic pit stops, and individual perspectives to arrive at the conclusion of not only how Jamal was killed but also dwells on more important questions like why he was killed and why he had to be killed inside the consulate in a manner that would eventually implicate the Saudi royal family and their blue-eyed crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman. 

There are a lot of documentaries on the murder of Khashoggi, but none could get as personal and detailed in their treatment as The Dissident. Maybe it was a budget thing or just the access that Bryan Fogel was able to get post his stupendous Icarus, in which he exposed the Russian doping conspiracy using himself as a subject and bait. Fogel stretches the boundaries associated with documentaries to such a limit that there were moments in this film when it felt like a fictional account of the incident with performers enacting characters. The fact that there have been no controversies about it since its release proves that Fogel got all his facts right which makes it an even more astounding achievement.

His way of telling the story is not only cinematic but also highly stylized. To prove this point, I just need to point the viewers to a sequence in the documentary wherein one of the characters explains how the Saudi government exerts and maintains its control over the usage of Twitter in Saudi Arabia using an army of officially hired trolls and operatives that is referred to here as the flies. To negate the impact of the flies, the dissidents develop their own army of counter-trolls that they refer to as the bees. It is a simple concept but the manner in which it is laid out using graphics and an inspiring score elevates the impact of the sequence ten folds. 

The film brings forth investing entities that we as audience up till its release didn’t even know were so integral to the story of Khashoggi. Omar Abdulaziz is one of the most important characters of the documentary. The film traces his genesis from being someone who had a lot of problems with the Saudi dictatorship, being vociferous about his issues with the government and venting out his anger on Twitter, coming under the radar of the Saudi Government, and finally forced to abandon his country and take refuge in Montreal where he is currently residing. His story had nothing to do with that of Jamal Khashoggi but as luck would have it, they were headed in the same direction as far as their views of the dictatorship were concerned which brought them together towards the middle of the film. 

We see how the hacking of Omar Abdulaziz’s phone proves to be the final nail in the coffin for Khashoggi. This is something that came as a complete surprise to me and I am certain that will be the case with anyone who watches this film for the first time and has some prior idea of the assassination. The amount of time the director spends to develop the character of Omar Abdulaziz only made it easier for us to form a more personal connection with the man and understand why he went to such an extent to avenge Khashoggi.

The film not only takes a much deeper look at the romantic relationship between Khashoggi and Hatice, but it also makes it a point to introduce us to a score of other characters who were friends and collaborators of Jamal. By doing this, Fogel makes us understand the importance of Jamal as an individual to so many people and also the power and privilege he enjoyed in the world of journalism. This, on the other hand, makes what happens to him even more shocking as it not only presents a terrifying picture of the Saudi perpetrators but also makes us realize how much more powerful they are as compared to someone who was an internationally acclaimed journalist and was always under the radar of his friends as they knew that he was perpetually in danger.

The film takes a detailed look at the murder and gives us accounts and testimonies of people who were directly involved in the investigation. By doing this, Fogel can extract a kind of authenticity and shock value for his content that none of the other features on the subject matter could. It also goes to help his cause that his version of the story covers a rather long period of over a year and he has the luxury of having access to a lot of the things that only happened later and that the earlier documentaries might not have had access to.

The most shocking of the lot was the transcripts of the conversation between the assassins on the day of the murder that was collected and handed over to the UN by the Turkish government. Agnès Callamard, a French Human Rights expert and the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council reads these chilling transcripts and is forced to stop at a point in the document where words give way to sounds. Sounds of the human body being dismembered. The film is peppered with numerous such sequences of absolute carnage that even though aren’t visually recreated but are referenced in such a manner that it adds a somber and disgusting feeling to the atrocities that the Saudis committed against their own citizen.

‘The Dissident’ is an essential watch. It goes on to show that how free speech can be trampled with clinical ease if the one trampling it is in a position of absolute power and is also in a position to cater to the vested interest of the rich and powerful. While the death of Jamal Khashoggi stirred up an unprecedented protest, questions, and name-calling, the actual murderers were never arrested or prosecuted. Shockingly, the 15th meeting of the Group of Twenty (G20) was convened from November 21-22, 2020, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia where Mohammad Bin Salman played host to some of the most powerful and rich leaders of the world. It was as if the entire world had forgotten that this was the man without whose orders Khashoggi could never have been killed. This is why we need to see ‘The Dissident’ again and again and never forget what happened to Khashoggi.

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