Runtime: 120 minutes
Director: Bryan Fogel
Writers: Bryan Fogel, Mark Monroe
By Joan Amenn
Reporters Without Borders, an independent NGO linked to the UN, noted that least 50 reporters were killed in 2020 due to their work. In the last decade, at least 937 have been killed and hundreds worldwide have died of Covid-19, though this certainly may not be caused by their profession. Jamal Khashoggi was one of these casualties, murdered as he was arranging to be married at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey on October 2, 2018. “The Dissident” (2020) is the story of his life and cruel death told by his fiancé, Hatice Cengiz, and his heir apparent in the fight for freedom of speech for his people, Omar Abdulaziz. It is a terrifying look at the power of immense wealth to crush any opposition and the human cost of fighting such authoritarianism.
Director Bryan Fogel is not a stranger to controversial subject matter. His previous film, “Icarus” (2017) revealed the huge Russian doping system for their Olympic athletes that is still reverberating throughout the world of sports. He spent many weeks gaining the trust of Khashoggi’s fiancé and the film is most poignant when it focuses on her stolen hopes for a future with the late journalist. The young Abdulaziz is riveting as the voice of a new generation of Saudi men and women who continue to fight for freedom against very sophisticated technological surveillance. He has also paid a terrible price of exile and continued threats against his life, much like his mentor and hero, Khashoggi. The most heartbreaking scenes are when we see him grapple with the imprisonment of his brothers and friends because he would not abandon his cause nor return to his country to an uncertain fate.
“The Dissident” depicts the plot of MBS to hack Jeff Bezos’ phone in retaliation for abandoning his economic summit in support of Khashoggi who was a reporter for the Washington Post, which he owns. It is bitterly ironic that Bezos makes an appearance in the film at a memorial arranged by Cengiz vowing that Khashoggi would never be forgotten but Amazon streaming did not arrange for its distribution. As a matter of fact, none of the major streaming services would touch it despite strong reviews in festivals. This overarching need to appease foreign markets who offer huge profits to the media giants has become one of the most compelling reasons for the continuation of small, independent voices such as the YouTube talk show started by Abdulaziz. He based its title on a paraphrase of one of Khashoggi’s favorite mottos, “Say it and walk away.” No one who ever knew Khashoggi seems willing to walk away from the cause he devoted his life to, which is why this film is as inspiring as it is shocking. Seeing it is a wake up call to value more deeply the intellectual freedoms we have and to never take them for granted.