Dissident, The (United States, 2020)

January 19, 2021
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Dissident, The Poster

On July 2, 2018, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey to obtain paperwork necessary for his planned marriage…and never emerged. His disappearance quickly became a major news story and, as details came out, it became apparent that not only had Khashoggi been murdered but Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) may have been the man to order the assassination. It took time but, as the months passed, seemingly every detail about Khashoggi’s last minutes was uncovered. The Dissident, from documentarian Bryan Fogel, repeats, amplifies, and clarifies all of the information previously available.

Although there is a fair amount of regurgitation of the news story, The Dissident offers sufficient new material to justify its existence. There’s an interview with exiled Saudi activist Omar Adulaziz, who believes himself to be partially responsible for Khashoggi’s death (as a result of their shared dissident activities). Adulaziz was also targeted by the Saudis for possible assassination but he avoided the trap (after which two of his brothers and several friends were arrested). There is a detailed conversation with Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz. And there’s an exploration into the way the Saudi government manipulates Twitter. This underreported tangent represents one of the best explanations I have seen to date about how easily social media can become a force for repression. (It’s more universal than just MBS, although the film focuses on how it applied with Khashoggi.)

Although Fogel’s presentation of Khashoggi’s life and death, which includes a brief bio and an explanation of why he rose to the top of MBS’ hit list, is meticulous, it’s mostly warmed-over material that has been covered equally as well in various cable TV news documentaries. This account, which struggled to find a distributor for a number of months following its January 2020 Sundance debut, almost feels dated being viewed a year after wrapping production. Things that might have seemed important toward the end of 2019 (still more than a year after Khashoggi’s murder) have long since been eclipsed by increasingly large and alarming news stories.

What Fogel has produced, with its talking-head interviews and copious use of archival footage, is essentially a long 60 Minutes-style story. Although he poses interesting questions around the periphery, he is unable to advance the central narrative. That’s because, even a year ago, the who? what? where? when? and why? were all known. The Dissident often seems like it was written as a primer for someone in the distant future looking back at the major news stories from 2018. A mere three years after the fact, however, the events are too fresh for the documentary to provide a wealth of new or surprising material.

That’s not to say The Dissident isn’t worth watching nor is it an indictment of its potential future importance. Unfortunately, the film elects to focus too closely on recognizable events and only perfunctorily touches on the background that made those events possible (and, some might argue, inevitable). The latter arena is where the intrigue and meat of the matter exists; the rest can be gleaned via YouTube and Wikipedia. The Dissident is a solid recap of Jamal Khashoggi’s demise, but it left me wanting more than Fogel is able to provide, even though he hints at an issue of vastly greater importance than the death of one dissident.

Dissident, The (United States, 2020)

Director: Bryan Fogel
Cast: Jamal Khashoggi, Mohammed Bin Salman, Hatice Cengiz, Omar Abdulaziz
Screenplay: Bryan Fogel, Mark Monroe
Cinematography: Jake Swantko
Music: Adam Peters
U.S. Distributor: Briarcliff Entertainment
Run Time: 1:59
U.S. Release Date: 2021-01-07
MPAA Rating: "NR"
Genre: Documentary
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1