Many recall the headlines that went around the world following the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. The Saudis responded with various bogus explanations until mid-October, when they finally admitted responsibility. Khashoggi had been ambushed, suffocated and dismembered by a 15-member squad of Saudi government assassins, Turkish investigators found.
When the Woolsey Fire hit on Nov. 8, most Malibu residents shifted focus away from the major news of the day and onto matters closer to home. Not so for documentary film director Bryan Fogel, who lives in Malibu and won an Oscar for his 2017 film “Icarus,” which exposed decades of doping by Russia’s Olympic athletes. He saw the Khashoggi story as the basis for his next big documentary.
“It checked all the boxes. In the days following the murder, I was drawn in by the story,” he recently told The Malibu Times. “By Nov. 18, I was on the ground in Turkey.” It was a year-long process for Fogel to gain the trust of those closest to the story and get them to share audio and video and be interviewed on camera. Those sources included the head of Turkish intelligence, officials in the Istanbul police, Khashoggi’s fiancée and a well-connected Arab dissident living in Canada.
Khashoggi had spent most of his career as a journalist in Saudi Arabia, working his way up to general manager and editor-in-chief of Al-Arab News Channel. When Mohammed bin Salman (aka MBS), the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, began running the country in June 2017 on behalf of the king, free political expression and the press were harshly repressed. Khashoggi, an Arab progressive, self-exiled to the U.S. in September of that year and began working as a columnist for The Washington Post.
“[My team and I] wanted it to feel like a thriller—with animated segments, the editorial style and the music.” Fogel said. “To feel more like ‘The Bourne Identity’ than a documentary, except that everything is true.”
The story moves quickly and uncovers far more than just the gruesome details of Khashoggi’s murder. Dissidents discovered the Saudi government hacks telephones using the infamous Israeli spyware Pegasus, including the hack of Jeff Bezos’s cell phone that probably led to his divorce. Why? Because Bezos pulled out of a Saudi investment and also didn’t stop the newspaper he owns—“The Washington Post,” from employing Khashoggi.
Dissidents also have proof that the Saudis monitor the country’s “Twitterverse” closely using an army of men on computers, referred to as “flies,” who try to drown out the opposition with thousands of posts, the film depicts, also detailing that Twitter itself has removed hundreds of thousands of accounts in the country, and Twitter “thought-makers” as well as dissidents and activists in the country are hunted down.
“There have been 900 beheadings in Saudi Arabia in the past year—it’s become a totalitarian regime,” Fogel explained. “We’re in a world of new warfare being fought on the battleground of technology. Whether it’s hacking software or viruses, like Russia sent to Ukraine, the threat isn’t going away. It’s a cat and mouse game. We have a lot of compelling evidence to prove that the Saudis will stop at nothing to control the narrative. People who know the country and live there say MBS has waged a violent campaign.”
The film shows a number of other interesting bits: security camera footage and audio from the Turkish embassy on the day of the murder and after, MBS meeting with Jared Kushner, and President Trump rejecting the CIA’s conclusion that MBS had ordered the killing.
So, why was Khashoggi murdered? The film documents his evolution from journalist to dissident. “Having an opinion about the royal family was a crime,” he said. The royal family feared Khashoggi’s deep knowledge of the country and what he might continue to say as a writer in Washington, D.C. He had already written columns criticizing the Saudi government’s record on women’s rights, imprisoning dissidents and activists, not allowing secularism and Islam to co-exist, and its disputes with other Middle Eastern countries. There was also evidence that Khashoggi had begun supporting a dissident group financially.
Khashoggi was quoted in the film saying, “Any ruler who respects only his own opinion is leading his country to a problem.”
“The Dissident” had a limited theatrical release beginning Dec. 25 and will be available as video-on-demand Jan. 8 on all platforms.
Note: A virtual Q&A screening of the film is also available now at MalibuFilmSociety.org.