There are few international crimes more outrageous than the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, slaughtered by agents of his own government at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul over a year ago.
Time has passed; the world has moved on. But a new documentary about exactly what happened to him is sure to stir renewed outrage, providing excruciating details of the execution itself and deeper context around Saudi Arabia’s manipulation of social media to control and punish those who speak out.
“The Dissident,” by the Oscar-winning filmmaker Bryan Fogel, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday and received a standing ovation before a group that included Khashoggi’s former fiancé, Arab freedom activists and a U.N. official who reported on the atrocity and recommended action against the regime’s leader Mohammad Bin Salman, or MBS. (None was taken.)
We all recall the brazen act: A distinguished journalist who wrote for The Washington Post’s opinion page, a critic of Saudi Arabia, murdered in broad daylight on foreign soil by Saudi agents, then cut into pieces by a government physician to remove his remains. The act was denied by Saudi Arabia until international outrage forced a series of half-hearted confessions.
The film is “a call to action to continue to fight for Jamal’s legacy and what he believed in,” Fogel said before the screening.
“The Dissident” may feel like it rambles in parts, and it does. But there is no denying the searing power of the story as it describes Khashoggi’s last moments, which history documents verbatim and with live audio thanks to the Turkish recording of the apparently-bugged consulate.
The scene is stomach-turning. Khashoggi arrived at the consulate on Oct. 2, 2018, to pick up a document for his marriage, as his fiancé Hatice Cengiz remains outside.
“Has the sacrificial victim arrived?” asks a Saudi official, according to the transcript.
“Yes,” comes the answer.
Khashoggi is quickly confronted by the consul-general, who demands that he send his family a dictated text. Khashoggi refuses, but that exchange is quickly cut short as the killing team closes in. “Don’t do this!” Khashoggi shouts, as he eyes a towel and asks if they intend to anesthetize him.
If only. No, instead the killers — who are identified by name in the film — suffocate him over seven and a half minutes, possibly using a plastic bag. “Clothes, clothes,” one barks, taking off Khashoggi’s clothes for a decoy to wear out on the street in a bid to misinform.
The military doctor discusses the size of body parts as he cuts them with a bonesaw and fits them in plastic cases. The film does not play the audio — which is a blessing — but even the English-language transcript is enough of a horror show. The military doctor discusses the size of body parts as he cuts and fits them in plastic cases.
What kind of government does this? The government of MBS, which also embarked on a massive campaign to discredit Khashoggi, using a Twitter farm to call him a traitor and worse. Few remain to speak for him besides the courageous Cengiz, who devotes her time to keeping Khashoggi’s memory alive. Khashoggi’s children and other family members do not speak up — they live in Saudi Arabia, silenced.
The film also introduces us to another Saudi dissident, the much-younger Omar Abdulaziz, who worked with Khashoggi to fight for free expression and a more open government, as well as a counter-Twitter campaign driven by fellow activists. Abdulaziz has political asylum in Canada, where he has started an online talk show.
But it is clear that not only has Saudi Arabia hacked Abdulaziz’s phone, from which authorities may have learned about Khashoggi’s movements, but — as we have just learned — the phone of Amazon chief and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos. Bezos met MBS on a tour to the United States, and a U.N. special rapporteur concludes in the film that MBS infiltrated Bezos’s phone when they exchanged numbers.
All of this disturbing information bears renewed attention on this case and how the world regards Saudi Arabia, which is trying hard to sell its message of reform and attract investment for a post-oil reality.
Fogel was moved to tell Khashoggi’s story on the heels of winning Best Documentary at the Academy Awards to “Icarus,” a story about sports, doping, Russia and Olympic corruption, he said in an interview at TheWrap’s studio at Sundance on Friday.
He said he hopes the world will still take punitive action against Saudi Arabia on behalf of a man who loved his country and wanted the best for it.
The film closes with a tragic ending shot of Khashoggi’s grave. The journalist who yearned for the right to live freely in his own country does not even have the dignity of an Arabic-language epitaph. His name is inscribed in Turkish on his tombstone.