Oscar winner Bryan Fogel’s The Dissident unfolds like a globetrotting spy thriller that could have been written by Ian Fleming or the recently deceased John le Carré. Crackling with tension, this real-life espionage saga, billed as “the untold story of the murder that shook the world,” isn’t a Hollywood movie but a documentary on the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian reporter who wrote for The Washington Post.
Co-written by Fogel and seasoned nonfiction storyteller Mark Monroe, The Dissident can be filed in the “truth is stranger than fiction” dossier. The filmmakers skillfully construct their production with original material, news clips, archival footage, and, significantly, closed circuit TV video, plus an animated sequence.
Using transcripts of audio obtained by Turkish law enforcement, The Dissident details the sixty-year-old’s capture and his brutal murder.
In two enthralling hours, The Dissident traces the trajectory of Khashoggi’s life, although not necessarily in chronological order. As one of Saudi Arabia’s top reporters with an international presence, he is shown hobnobbing with royalty and operating as a mouthpiece for the kingdom.
However, just as he reportedly did with Osama bin Laden, Khashoggi breaks with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who imprisons opponents and members of the royal family. Khashoggi increasingly uses his stature as a high-profile Middle East correspondent, and his gifts as a journalist, to publicly critique the monarchy, finally moving abroad in 2017 to live in exile. As a columnist for the Post, he hurls broadsides against the House of Saud and its policies.
The film details Khashoggi’s relationship with Hatice Cengiz, a Turkish Ph.D. candidate, whom he met at a conference in Istanbul. Their romance sets the wheels in motion for a series of events that will eventually lead to gruesome consequences.
When Khashoggi and Cengiz plan to marry, Khashoggi visits the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain required documents and is told to return in a few days. According to the film, this is when a trained team of assassins are flown to Istanbul to kill the journalist. They are lying in wait for him when Khashoggi returns to pick up his paperwork as Cengiz waits outside the gate. Khashoggi never leaves that consulate alive.
Using transcripts of audio obtained by Turkish law enforcement, The Dissident details the sixty-year-old’s capture and his brutal murder. Onscreen, sources including high-level Turkish officials, former CIA chief John Brennan, and the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur Agnès Callamard all point the finger directly at bin Salman.
The Saudi royals dispute this, as does their ally President Trump. True-to-form, Trump—never a fan of independent-minded journalists—in July 2019 vetoed Congress’s attempt to scrap an $8 billion sale of weaponry to Riyadh.
One of The Dissident’s heroes is, surprisingly, Jeff Bezos, who as owner of The Washington Post was Khashoggi’s employer. The film claims Bezos’s mobile phone was hacked via a WhatsApp message from bin Salman’s personal account and mentions in passing that it was around this time that The National Enquirer printed unflattering stories about the billionaire’s private life. On the one-year anniversary of Khashoggi’s disappearance, Bezos bravely attends a commemoration outside of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul with Hatice Cengiz.
Although many viewers are probably familiar with Jamal Khashoggi’s fate, at times this stellar, cinematic work, The Dissident, will have viewers sitting on the edges of their seats. It is at least the fifth documentary this year about courageous, if besieged, human rights champions and activists, including another about Khashoggi, Kingdom of Silence, plus Nasrin—reviewed earlier this month—and A Thousand Cuts, The Art of Political Murder, and I Am Greta. In a year of mass uprisings and opposition to dictatorship at home, this is a refreshing, vital cycle of films.
The Dissident will be released nationally in select theaters on December 25 and will be available on January 8, 2021 via Comcast, ATT, DIRECTV, Dish, Spectrum, Verizon, Frontier, Apple TV, iTunes, FandangoNow, Vudu, Redbox On Demand, and Amazon.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.