The Dissident – Glasgow Film Festival 2021 Review

by Jordan King

On October 2, 2018, at approximately 1:14pm, 59-year-old Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul. Whilst his soon-to-be-wife waited outside for her fiancé to pick up papers pertaining to their imminent marriage, Khashoggi was ambushed inside the Consul by a group of men who drugged him, murdered him, and then dismembered his body.

As the Saudi Arabian Government issued contradicting responses to a rapidly escalating sense of unease and unrest outside the Embassy as dissidents waited for Khashoggi’s safe exit from the building, inside a crime scene was being cleaned by a team of assassins who just this past week have been confirmed to have been operating under the express orders of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. And for what reason was Jamal Khashoggi murdered? He spoke out against the Saudi Government in his WP column and on his personal Twitter account.

One of the first spoken lines in Bryan Fogel’s incendiary documentary The Dissident comes from 27-year-old Vlogger Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi exile in Canada whose shared disdain for his home nation’s Governmental policies of oppression and suppression made he and Khashoggi fast friends. ‘In Saudi Arabia, having an opinion is a crime’ he states to camera. With two brothers and twenty-two friends to this day held in maximum security prisons under no formal charge, imprisoned seemingly for externalising their thoughts, Abdulaziz’ statement is by no means hyperbolic. And, over the course of the exhaustive, emotionally exhausting two hours that follows in Fogel’s film, viewers are shown in myriad ways and forensic detail just how far the Saudi Arabian government are willing to go to control their populace and preserve their status as one of the most powerful nations on Earth.

Utilising rapid editing and a fluid CG-visualisation of everything from the Saudi ‘Flies’ hired by the Government to swarm Twitter feeds and silence dissidents whilst blindly praising the Crown Prince to the Pegasus hacking program which has been deployed time and again to turn mobile phones into residual homes for digital spies, Fogel seamlessly weaves a narrative that would feel like a Tom Clancy novel were it not so crushingly and brutally true. As Abdulaziz, Khashoggi’s partner, and international intelligence figures involved in the Khashoggi killing case relive every step of the story from Khashoggi’s earliest signs of dissension to the anniversary of his death, indicting the inhumanity of a Governmental system that advocates for and is complicit in murder if it is deemed to be in the Crown’s best interests, what most potently and poignantly emerges is a portrait of a brilliant man who was taken cruelly far before his time.

In intimate text exchanges and anecdotes, Khashoggi’s fiancée Hatice Cenzig reveals a man who found a home away from nations in the form of his soulmate. In Khashoggi’s own words and the legacy he leaves behind him, we see an ardent champion of free speech, a voice for the voiceless whose name was always destined to become a burning beacon of light amidst a sea of darkness and hopelessness. Even in the monstrosity of the man’s murder, we are perversely reminded of the titanic influence and importance of Jamal Khashoggi – 15 men were enlisted to take down and silence one man, and yet even in death, his spirit and example endures.

Whilst many will look to sequences such as the harrowing line by line reading of the transcript of Khashoggi’s murder and dismemberment as being the moments destined to be burned into the subconscious of viewers, it is actually in the film’s turning of focus onto America’s response to the assassination where perhaps its most disturbing revelations lie. Witnessing Donald Trump casually dismiss MBS’ alleged involvement in Khashoggi’s death because he values arms deals and oil above human lives is chilling – Trump vetoed a bipartisan vote to stop arms trading with Saudi Arabia, and even in the face of his own CIA chief concluding Saudi governmental involvement in Khashoggi’s murder, the President still refused to place decency above the dollar. By the time Jeff Bezos – whose phone was hacked in 2018 seemingly directly through MBS’ WhatsApp account – arrives on the scene, offering condolences to his former employee’s fiancée before subsequently, tellingly, leaving her in the lurch and distancing his company Amazon from Fogel’s documentary, it becomes clear that money is as much of a murderous accomplice as man.

Presented with the flair of a balls-to-the-wall political thriller, but crafted with the care and attention to detail uniquely intrinsic to top tier documentarian filmmaking, The Dissident is a stunning, vital film. It’s almost too hard to watch, but it is always impossible to look away. I thank my lucky stars I live in a place where writing these words won’t put a bounty on my head, and I salute Jamal Khashoggi, a man of unparalleled integrity and immortal convictions.

The Dissident plays as part of the Glasgow Film Festival 
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