Director – Bryan Fogel – 2020 – UK – Cert. tbc – 119m
An investigation into the state-sanctioned killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Turkey in 2018 – on Amazon Prime from Thursday, April 1st
If you had to use a single phrase to describe this documentary, it would be “jaw-dropping”. The central subject here is the disappearance of Saudi-born Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi who on October 2nd 2018 entered the Saudi consulate in Turkey to obtain a document and was never seen again.
There are a number of narrative strands: the career of a Saudi exile Omar Abdulaziz Alzahrani in Montreal, Canada who Khashoggi befriended, a brief history of the Saudi regime focusing in particular on the last decade, Khashoggi’s ongoing romance with young Turkish political researcher Hadice Cengiz who he planned to marry and the story of what actually went on inside the consulate recounted by the Turkish prosecutor Irfan Fidan.
It’s jaw-dropping because it delivers one devastating revelation after another. The idea of entering your country’s consulate to collect a document and not leaving alive is horrific enough, but there are numerous other, equally chilling disclosures here.
Fidan says that the victim was “not killed in an unplanned way” and UN Special Rapporteur, Human Rights Council Agnès Callamard points to the killing being a deliberate state operation – the killers included two people with diplomatic immunity and ten who flew in to Turkey on a Saudi state jet. She and many other interviewees believe the killing was ordered by Saudi Defence Minister Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman aka MBS and that he must be investigated. The Saudis have, in secret hearings, prosecuted a number of those involved, but the highest ranking names have been let off.
The film starts and ends with Alzahrani in Montreal and spends much time with him in between. We learn of the Saudi administration putting pressure on him to return to his homeland with a sweetener of a career as a TV show host and dire threats of what might happen if her refuses. Much is said about Twitter: two out of ten US citizens use it compared with eight out of ten in Saudi, where it’s the only media space with anything remotely resembling freedom of speech. However, the Saudi Twittersphere has the Flies, a state troll farm whose job it is to bolster tweets by the state pushing, ironically, the Prince’s vision of a reformed country and to repress any alternative opinion.
The Flies are brilliantly conveyed here by images of armies of people behind vast lines of desks with computer terminals and computer graphics depicting the activities of animated flies singly or in swarms protecting or attacking images, tweets and locations in the virtual universe. Alzahrani attempted to compete with this and promote free twitter speech using an army of volunteers and the hashtag #what_do_you_know_about_the_bees? and the CG sequence is appropriately extended to show his Bees attacking the Flies.
Delving further into the murky realms of cyber-espionage, we learn of the Saudis possessing “the best hacking software money can buy” in the form of Israeli-made Pegasus v2. The software which was used on Alzahrani’s phone which, he latter concludes, is why Khashoggi was killed – the latter was no longer just a journalist but now a dissident who funded anti-State operations.
More disturbing still are the details of the actual assassination. An audio recording exists – mercifully, perhaps, that’s not in the film – but the English language transcript of the event is, and it’s pretty chilling. It’s bought to life by being read aloud as we see page extracts on the screen, with animated yellow marker highlights marking the words being read in real time. As Khashoggi enters the building, there’s talk of “the sacrificial lamb having arrived” and medical discussions beforehand about the details of cutting up and disposing of a human body. A conference room was chosen because someone in another country could watch or hear the proceedings in real time.
There is material about how Khashoggi’s clothes were disposed of and how his dismembered corpse was transported to the consul general’s residence where it was burned with fresh meat (to hide the smell) in a tandoori oven in the bottom of well (which Turkish investigators were later not allowed to search).
There’s also a little archive footage of Khashoggi himself, including him about to give an address and being upstaged by a cat, something he takes with good humour which would appear to be representative of the man who clearly cared greatly for both his fellow human beings and his country and whose killing represents a tragic loss to this country and he world. “It’s like a strange dream”, says Hatice Cengiz and indeed it is: frightening stuff, though, and a story we avoid at our peril.
This review was originally written for the film’s Glasgow Film Festival screening.
Alternate review in Reform magazine.
The Dissident is on Amazon Prime from Thursday, April 1st
Glasgow Film Festival Saturday, March 6th to Tuesday, March 9th
Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival from Thursday, March 11th