Before the pandemic hit, Oscar-winning director Bryan Fogel’s latest documentary “The Dissident” about the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was one of the hottest films at Sundance. But months later it couldn’t find a buyer, and the director now accuses Hollywood of “fear” and “cowardice” for not giving the film a platform.
The premiere of “The Dissident” in Sundance was attended by Hillary Clinton and Alec Baldwin, among many others. But TheWrap previously reported back in March that Hollywood had shunned the documentary for fear of backlash from the Saudi Arabian government.
Though it was finally acquired by Tom Ortenberg’s Briarcliff Entertainment in September, Fogel said in an interview with TheWrap that not one of the major streamers or distributors “stepped forward” to acquire the film because of the influence that Saudi Arabia has over the entertainment business.
“In terms of the major streamers, it was across the board fear, cowardice and protecting of their business interest, their subscriber growth or not wanting to upset the apple cart in that region,” Fogel told Sharon Waxman in a virtual Q&A on Friday. “The appetite is for the money and business interests, and that takes precedence over human rights.”
Fogel’s film examines the untold story behind the killing of Khashoggi, who was a dissident and columnist for The Washington Post who spoke out against the Saudi Arabian monarchy and crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s influence and his suppression of dissenting voices in the country.
While his story of how Khashoggi was killed inside a Saudi consulate in Istanbul has become well known, Fogel says “The Dissident” includes a “treasure trove” of evidence that still hasn’t been made public to the media, including a chilling transcript of audio heard at the moment of Khashoggi’s murder.
One revelatory story discussed in “The Dissident” involves the news that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ phone was hacked by MBS. Fogel is astonished that despite that, Amazon and others continue to do business with the kingdom.
“Even despite everything you see in the film of Jeff Bezos’ hack and that they killed arguably an employee of Jeff Bezos, Amazon is still doing business with Saudi Arabia. Netflix just announced an eight-picture deal with a Saudi Arabian production company, which has to be involved with the kingdom and the government because that’s how it works there,” Fogel said. “That money and investment has been so pervasive that it has led to myriads of media companies, Fortune 500 companies and governments to essentially look the other way to their human rights abuses because their money and business interests are too powerful.”
Fogel named Penske Media, owner of Hollywood trades Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and Deadline, as among the companies that have compromised themselves by accepting investment from Saudi companies. Saudi Arabia also has significant investment in tech companies from Uber ($3.5 billion) through its funding of Japan’s Soft Bank.
Fogel says Saudi Arabia has a long history of human rights abuses and has imprisoned or even beheaded hundreds of young activists for simply tweeting their opinions or expressing criticism of the kingdom. In following both a political refugee named Omar Alzahrani and Khashoggi’s widow Hatice Cengiz, Fogel says “The Dissident” touches on a much larger narrative about Saudi Arabi, and he hopes their activism as expressed through the film has the power to make a difference in the region.
“There are thousands and thousands of people that deserve to be freed and let their voices heard, and I think that is justice for Jamal, fighting to continue to stop these human rights abuses in the kingdom and let voices of dissent be heard,” Fogel said. “I look to women like this and people like this that show bravery in the face of adversity, and I try to stay focused on doing the best job that I can and do the best job I can as a storyteller.”
“The Dissident” is available in limited theatrical release on Christmas Day and on-demand on January 8. Check out the full interview conversation between Bryan Fogel and Sharon Waxman above.