The last few years have seen a wave of true-crime documentaries from around the world. But it’s unusual to find one in which the story unfolds against a backdrop of global geopolitics and worldwide headlines right up until the date of release.
While director Bryan Fogel is discussing his new film, The Dissident, about the murder of journalist Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi, we're also waiting for the news flash that will announce that the Biden administration has released the CIA's analysis of the October 2018 killing in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, confirming that it was carried out on the instruction of Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.
It’s rare that a feature film overlaps so closely with the news of the day.
The killing of Khashoggi, a US-based opponent of the Saudi regime who wrote regularly for the Washington Post, turned a spotlight on what was going on in Saudi Arabia, where the 35-year-old bin Salman, often called MBS, has ruthlessly and efficiently seized power at the expense of other members of the country's ruling family, and has been prosecuting a brutal war in neighbouring Yemen which until recently was supported by arms sales from the US.
MBS's close ties with the Trump administration, and with the Trump family itself, meant it took a change in the White House for the CIA's damning report to be published (although its contents were already widely known).
Fogel's film, screening next week at the Dublin International Film Festival, sees the crime primarily through the eyes of two people. Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi's fiancée, left him at the door of the consulate, where he was supposed to be getting the necessary papers for their marriage to take place. He never came out again.
Trolls and propagandists
Omar Abdulaziz is a 27-year-old Canada-based Saudi exile and critic of the regime. He and Khashoggi became friends in 2017, after the journalist, previously a pillar of the country's establishment, fled to the US following a crackdown on free speech and dissent. The two worked together on a social media campaign to counter the regime's online army of trolls and propagandists. This activity, Fogel's film suggests, is what led to his assassination.
The furore over the murder, which the Saudis attempted at first to flatly deny had taken place, reached a new pitch when the Turkish government released transcripts of audio its intelligence services had secretly recorded inside the consulate. The chilling discussions of how to dismember and dispose of the body are one of the centrepieces of The Dissident, alongside Cengiz’s campaign for justice and accountability and Abdulaziz’s account of the tyrannical brutality of the regime.
Fogel became aware of the story just a few months after he had won the Academy Award for Best Documentary for Icarus, his acclaimed exposé of Russian state-sanctioned doping and corruption in sport.
“Icarus was released in August of 2017,” he says on Zoom from Los Angeles. “Until March of 2018, and the conclusion of that media cycle and the wonderful honour of the Academy Award, it was really hard for me to have any bandwidth to seriously consider taking on another project.” When the Khashoggi story broke, though, he was immediately interested.
"It checked every box that I was looking for, a story of freedom of speech, truth to power, fake news, false narratives . . . Somebody who had caught the attention of a fascist dictator, an authoritarian regime. I read more about Jamal and who he was and saw that he was being falsely presented in so many media outlets as Muslim Brotherhood, an Isis sympathiser, a terrorist sympathiser, a friend of bin Laden . . . All this Saudi propaganda, it made me want to try to set the record straight.
CGI and re-enactments
“And then you had these elements that played in my mind as a cinematic thriller. I’m always thinking about how can I craft something that is going to feel like a scripted thriller.”
The Dissident eschews straight current affairs reportage, using CGI, re-enactments, energetic editing and swooping camera moves. Fogel, who came to documentary after years of working theatre and comedy, cites high-style drama directors like David Fincher and Christopher Nolan as cinematic influences.
But to be able to make the film, he had to build trust with his subjects, who were at the centre of a media whirlwind. “It was a very difficult time because as I was reaching out to Hatice Cengiz a month after Jamal’s murder, every journalist in the world was reaching out to her,” he says. “Omar Abdulaziz was flooded with requests.”
The Academy Awards helped establish his bona fides, but Fogel still had to establish a bond of trust with his subjects at a frightening time for them. "In the case of Hatice, I travelled to Istanbul, and the first five weeks that I was there, not only did we not film, we would just get together and talk about life. She didn't speak a lot of English at the time, so we would sit with the translator. And we would cry.
“And I just said that if you let me into your life, I will do everything that I can to protect you and to try to tell this story honestly and try to help protect Jamal’s legacy and to let the world understand what it is you’re going through, who Jamal was as a person and why you fell in love with this man.”
A similar process took place with Abdulaziz in Montreal. “He was living in a hotel under the protection of Canadian intelligence. We started filming under the agreement that every time that I filmed with him, I’d leave him with the camera cards because he didn’t know if he wanted to be a part of it yet . Half the time we were planning to shoot with him, we couldn’t because there was a death threat on his life that day. And about six months into it, Omar hands back the camera cards and goes, Okay, I trust you guys. You’re my brother.”
Fogel acknowledges that the Turkish government is not a disinterested party in this story, but he needed their co-operation. "It was a similar sort of trust-building where Turkey really wanted to have this story told. And I think the work that I had done with Icarus helped to build that trust. I realise Turkey's got their own human rights issues, freedom of press issues, all those kind of things. But in this instance, that wasn't the story that I was there to tell."
The Dissident premiered a year ago to positive reviews at the Sundance Film Festival, but then something odd happened. The usual bidding war that would be expected around a high-profile film from an Oscar-winning director failed to materialise. Netflix, Amazon and the other streaming services declined to make an offer. Rumours swirled about how Saudi pressure was scaring off purchasers. It took eight months to find a distributor willing to take the title on.
Thor Halvorssen, chief executive of the nonprofit Human Rights Foundation, who financed the film and served as a producer, told the New York Times that "what I observed was that the desire for corporate profits have left the integrity of America's film culture weakened".
The worrying implication of all this is that control over whether films reach large audiences is now in the hands of global tech companies, which inevitably prioritise their own strategic interests across the world over everything else.
“The fact that it has struggled and that we don’t have a global distributor is disappointing,” says Fogel. “Not for myself personally. I look at it more as a disappointment for the world that we are finding ourselves increasingly in.
“Hopefully with the Biden administration really showing a backbone and standing up to Saudi Arabia and their human rights violations, it might open the door down the line that a lot of these big global companies won’t have to be fearful. Under the Trump administration, that fear was pervasive because you weren’t just standing up to Saudi Arabia, you were also taking on the US government.”
It’s debatable how much things have really changed, though. Since we spoke, Biden has been widely criticised for his reaction to the CIA report, which falls some way short of the promises he made during last year’s election campaign that Saudi Arabia would “pay the price” for its actions and be made “the pariah that they are”.
None of the limited measures taken affect Mohammed bin Salman directly, with US officials citing the importance of the Saudi relationship for US geopolitical interests. The Saudi government, for its part, has vehemently rejected the CIA’s naming of bin Salman as the instigator of the crime.
Fogel believes the real question is whether King Salman, who is in his 80s and still the titular Saudi ruler, would have the power to stop his son if he wanted to. “I think that’s to be determined. Most intelligence agencies or people who write and report on Saudi Arabia feel that’s very unlikely, because Mohammed bin Salman over the last few years has done so many things to shore up his power to see to it that there is no other alternative to him. But I guess time will tell.”