In 2018, Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi enters the Saudi Arabian embassy in Istanbul – and never comes out. As his fiancée, Saudi Arabian dissidents around the world, and the Turkish authorities start to investigate the murder, they uncover a global cover up built on a decade of Saudi Arabia’s stranglehold over its people and possibly led by the highest authority in the country.
The disappearance, and later to be discovered murder, of Saudi Arabian journalist Khashoggi shocked the Western world for its interest as so alike a ‘Whodunnit’ plot Hercule Poirot would be investigating.
In the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia, the story was met with more division. How, when one of the county’s most beloved journalists – for years integral to the function of the Saudi royal family’s regime – had been killed in such suspicious circumstances? Because he was murdered on the order of the same royal family, and the country’s propaganda machine went into overdrive to twist the details of this intriguing story.
This gives you a taste of the world you are about to step into with The Dissident. The roots of conspiracy go deep, spanning the globe and working its way up to the highest authority figure in one of the world’s most powerful countries.
Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, is a well-known figure for equal parts charm and ambition. In The Dissident, director Bryan Fogel, with the help of Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, and an expat dissident, Omar Abdulaziz, has shown the world how deadly this ambition can be. In doing so, he’s also have revealed just how ugly international politics is.
Fogel makes interesting stylistic choices to give The Dissident a unique look. Digital sequences are woven into interviews with those who knew Khashoggi, as well as old news footage, to give visual context to the film’s complex story. Explaining complicated socio-political movements over several decades is no easy feat; Fogel achieves it with aplomb here, breaking down stories into simple, digestible information. It’s an important story to tell, bringing to light the links between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the infamous murder.
However, The Dissident does have an interesting side plot that calls into question the documentary’s integrity. At the end of the film, we learn that Mohammed bin Salman was found to have allegedly bugged Jeff Bezos’ phone after the business relationship between the two soured in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder. To have The Dissident land on Amazon Prime so soon after this issue seems an unlikely coincidence; but this minor sideline only scratches to the sheen on The Dissident’s political outlook.
Fogel follows Khashoggi’s story from the perspective of two of his inner circle, his fiancée and a fellow Saudi dissident living overseas. These perspectives lend The Dissident emotional weight to counter all the heavy political discourse.
Omar Abdulaziz’s story is nearly as compelling as Khashoggi’s; part of a young generation who took to social media to vent their frustrations at their restrictive society, he was forced to leave the country for fear of imprisonment. He has been bribed and blackmailed by the Saudi government to give up his dissident role. His continued battle against these abuses, and his internal conflict at this decision which separates him from his family, makes up a large part of the film’s emotiveness.
Hatice Cengiz’s perspective, on the other hand, feels a little more forced. Her intimate connection with Khashoggi, going beyond politics or ideals, somehow failed to ignite much feeling. She seemed a necessary addition to the documentary because of her status, rather than as someone who could add truly unique insight into the inner workings of Khashoggi’s mind.
A stylish documentary akin to a political thriller, The Dissident is engaging, informative, and emotional. It can be accused of being one-sided, and its Hollywood sensationalising of a man’s recent death is in poor taste at times. But ultimately, The Dissident unpacks a rife topic with great interest. The real hallmark of the film’s quality is if it can use its Oscar nomination as a platform to see justice done.
The Dissident, while bordering sensationalist for such a serious topic, really immerses you in the sinister – and real – world of global politics and thrilling espionage. 7.5/10.