The grisly murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and the subsequent cover-up by the Saudi government is explored in “The Dissident,” a complex and detailed documentary from director Bryan Fogel. Through CCTV footage, social media history, interviews with Jamal’s family and friends, and unprecedented access to video evidence from Turkish police, the film gives an insider look at the why and how of the crime. Fogel includes such a large volume of information in his documentary that it feels unfocused, as he tries to tackle too much in one sitting.
Khashoggi was outspoken about his homeland of Saudi Arabia, and the government didn’t take to kindly to what they saw as his rebellious ideas for reform. The journalist was never afraid to speak his mind despite the cyber attacks, threats, and dangers he faced for doing so. He ultimately sacrificed everything for his freedom of speech.
The lengths at which those in power in the Saudi government would go to silence dissidents is shocking and frightening, including creating a literal social media army to discredit anyone who disagreed. An estimated 80% of Saudis use Twitter, and social media has a high importance to those living in the Kingdom. The film criticizes this censorship of free speech and draws the conclusion that Khashoggi was killed because of it.
The documentary jumps around a lot, and the story is all over the place. There’s an arc that follows Jamal’s fiancée Hatice Cengiz and her fight to piece together clues as to what really happened, a woman who is doing all she can to see that justice is served. Another section features interviews with Jamal’s right hand man Omar Abdulaziz about their plan to collaborate on several social media projects. The most intriguing parts of the film, at the risk of sounding totally morbid, is the true crime story. The interviews with Turkish officials are alarming, and that those likely responsible for ordering the murder haven’t been punished is infuriating.
I wish “The Dissident” had been tighter overall, and I think a smaller-scale story would’ve made a better movie. But this sprawling tale of the power of technology, tyranny, love, and murder is one that’s intriguing and will leave you furious and ready to take action.