Streaming on diff.co.in till April 8
Oscar winning director Bryan Fogel’s documentary, The Dissident, is a scary film.
An investigation into the planned assassination of 59-year-old journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabia’s royal regime at their embassy in Istanbul, The Dissent is visually sombre, often flat, but stunning in the things it reveals.
Constructed like a thriller, the documentary begins by talking with Omar Abdulaziz who seems like a paranoid young man in Canada, and ends by making us listen to a blood-curdling transcript of people laughing, talking as they are killing Khashoggi. Then there’s the sound of a bone saw cutting a body into pieces.
In Istanbul, on October 2, 2018, Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi Arabian embassy to get a document which would certify that he was unmarried. His young fiancé, Hatice Cengiz, a Turkish academic researcher, waited outside the embassy, on the other side of the cement barricades. They were looking forward to getting married. They had got a house and Khashoggi was especially thrilled with the Lazy Boy chair he had bought.
The Dissident, which begins with the disappearance of Khashoggi, moves to the Turkish authorities’ investigation, Saudi cover up, revelation of the murder, puts us inside several rooms en route where we meet Khashoggi’s journalist colleagues, his friends, other activists critical of the Saudi regime. Mostly, the location of these rooms is not disclosed because many are in hiding.
We also visit the “meeting room” at the embassy where we see, under the glare of ultraviolet light, a freshly cleaned carpet and a trail of blood drops that forms a large, uneven circle.
Omar Abdulaziz Alzahrani, a 27-year-old Saudi vlogger, left his country and took political asylum in Canada after his father received a phone call from the authorities asking that he bring in his son. Omar had barely 100 followers on Twitter, but he was critical of the regime.
Omar now has 5,79,000 Twitter followers and says that Khashoggi and he were working on several “project”. He believes that Khashoggi was killed because of him.
Omar, handsome and built like a boxer, moves cautiously through Montreal because, he says, whenever he begins to relax, a text or a phone call reminds him to be careful, to keep moving, change cities, change his Sim card. “They will try to kill you,” he is told.
The Dissident spends a lot of time with Khashoggi, to tell us why the man who was once an insider of the Saudi royal family, became a threat and was eventually killed.
Khashoggi is often smiling but he also talks of the constant feeling of loneliness.
We watch him go into the embassy. There is no footage of him leaving it.
Khashoggi was a part of the Saudi royals’ inner circle for 30 years, working as a media consultant and journalist and for the government. At the age of 58, he left Saudi Arabia, moved to the US and joined The Washington Post. There he began writing articles critical of the Saudi government and MBS.
Khashoggi’s friends talk about his visit to Tahrir Square, how much he was affected by the Arab Spring, became more vocal about citizen’s rights and accused the Saudi royals of funding the counter-revolution that killed “hope” in the Arab world.
The Dissident chronicles the history of Saudi Arabia, which controls about half of the world’s oil reserves, the Saudi royal family and the power it wields, at home and abroad.
Most of this power now rests with Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the king of Saudia Arabia, and crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS.
Described as “ambitious, impatient and the king’s favourite”, MBS serves as the deputy Prime Minister and is the power behind the throne.
MBS has, what he calls, “Vision 2030” for Saudi Arabia. He is keen to give women some rights, like watching football, driving, allowing music and films, so that the regime’s place at international forums is palatable. Criticism, dissent is not a part of Vision 2030. Control, The Dissident claims, especially of social and other media is a major part of it.
If two out of 10 people in the US are on Twitter, in Saudi Arabia it’s eight out of 10, the film claims and explains Saudi Arabia’s use of trolls and Pegasus, the spyware used to hack into the phones of friends and foes, to quash dissent.
Omar talks about “flies” — Saudi trolls — and how they target and attack criticism, and shares his plan to create a voluntary online army of “bees” who would mount counter attacks on social media.
Khashoggi liked Omar’s plan. It required investment to buy American SIM cards that would be distributed to the volunteers. The first lot of SIMs were bought by money that came from Khashoggi.
Omar recalls how, after several days and many failed attempts, finally the Bees’ hashtag was trending, above Saudi Arabia’s.
Jamal Khashoggi had 2 million followers on Twitter. And a year before Khashoggi was killed, MBS told one of his aides that he would go after Khashoggi with a “bullet”.
In the transcript of phone chats between Saudi officials who had flown in to Istanbul on private jets five days before Khashoggi’s murder, one asked, “Has the sacrificial victim arrived?”
“Yes,” another replied.
Turkish officials — investigators and the prosecutor — provide evidence that Khashoggi was killed in a planned manner. They say that 10 minutes after he entered the embassy, he was gagged, perhaps with a plastic sheet on his head.
Khashoggi was asthmatic and according to the Turkish authorities he was held and suffocated by several men for seven-and-a-half minutes.
The film leaves out some crucial bits — like how did the Turkish authorities get these tapes (they had bugged the embassy) — but we see Turkish authorities searching the house of the Saudi consul general, wanting to drain out a well but are denied permission.
They film a large tandoor with ash and a Turkish official says that 70 lbs of meat was ordered the night Khashoggi went missing.
The unbearable bits in The Dissident are towards the end, when Agnès Callamard, the UN’s special rapporteur for extrajudicial killing, travels to Istanbul to review the evidence of Khashoggi’s murder. She talks of listening to the most chilling parts of the audio recordings — when Khashoggi’s body was being cut with a bone saw.
But perhaps the most stunning fact in The Dissident is how MBS, a friend of Jeff Bezos who owns Washington Post, was upset that he was not shutting down the Post’s campaign for justice for Khashoggi.
The film shares their WhatsApp messages. We see the silly video that MBS sent to Bezos — it unleashed Pegasus and turned Bezos’ phone into a listening device.
The Dissident is scary because Bryan Fogel’s 2017 documentary Icarus, on doping in competitive cycling, won the Oscar. But none of the streaming sites, including Jeff Bezos’ Amazon Prime Video, have picked up The Dissident. They don’t plan to, either.