Who was Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post journalist whose Oct. 2, 2018 disappearance at the Saudi Consulate in Turkey dominated headlines for weeks on end?
“The Dissident,” a documentary premiere at Sundance 2020, shows that Khashoggi was more than just a writer. He was a reformer, activist, friend, future husband and in the months leading to his death, a Saudi dissident. Interviews with several sources make for an engaging and all-encompassing image of Khashoggi from all angles. His fiancé Hatice Cengiz introduces Khashoggi the kind-hearted man. His co-activist Omar Abdulaziz introduces Khashoggi the dissident. Cengiz, Abdulaziz and others close to Khashoggi reveal his loving, devoted nature and dedication to the human rights of the people of Saudi Arabia.
Following Khashoggi’s story from his time as a journalist in Saudi Arabia to his short-lived self-exile to the United States, it’s amazing that he lived as long as he did. For decades, Khashoggi thrived in a grey area in which he criticized the government yet remained a close friend of the royal family. He knew what red lines not to cross, but he pushed his journalism to the very edge of those lines. When the government began to crack down on the voice of any Saudi figure with an audience, Khashoggi fled to the United States.
The film demonstrates how Khashoggi came to be targeted by the Saudi government. He continued to criticize Saudi Arabia from the safety of the United States while writing for The Washington Post, fighting for free speech through the power of his words. Abdulaziz reveals the depth to which Khashoggi became involved in Saudi insurgency, even wiring thousands of dollars to fund Abdulaziz’s Twitter warfare against the Saudi government. It is through affiliation with his activism that Abdulaziz believes Khashoggi sealed his fate.
Khashoggi is not the only person whose portrait is painted in “The Dissident.” The filmmakers’ access to Turkish evidence and interviews with Turkish officials reveal the character of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS. Turkish officials in charge of the case reveal the heartbreaking manner in which Khashoggi was murdered, and his corpse was disposed of. Incriminating evidence shows how strongly MBS is implicated in the murder. The documentary highlights the unity of American intelligence in the belief that MBS ordered the killing, something that speaks to the character of Donald Trump, who refuses to believe MBS was involved.
While compelling in its portrait of Khashoggi, “The Dissident” feels amateurish in its artistry. Its filmmaking is full of questionable choices. Imposing “glitchy” filters over all footage associated with Khashoggi’s murder. Overused footage of Omar Abdulaziz walking the streets of Montreal in a topcoat, looking like a loner. An obnoxious computer-generated battle between robotic bees and flies, meant to depict the cyber warfare between Saudi Arabia’s Twitter army and Omar Abdulaziz’s organized activists. It’s disappointing, especially considering the seriousness of the subject matter.
The narrative is overly reliant on Abdulaziz’s own activism, which is interesting, but given far too much screen time. If it had been traded for more discussion of the consequences of Khashoggi’s assassination on journalism, Saudi Arabia or the world at large, there would be much more to glean from the whole documentary.
There’s also the issue of sidelining Turkey’s own dictatorial practices in a film that’s all about Saudi Arabia’s anti-democratic action. The film may have been about Khashoggi and the Saudi government, but refusing to acknowledge the Turkish government’s political situation in the context of the film’s greater message about government overreach is a jarring dichotomy. This is probably a cost of access to Turkish evidence, but I’m left wondering if interviews with Turkish prosecutors for the film were worth skirting around Turkey’s thinly-veiled dictatorship.
Despite these shortcomings, “The Dissident” is still an eye-opening watch. It is both a complete picture of Khashoggi as a good-natured freedom fighter and a revelation of the power wielded by the Saudi government — it even made me scared I would end up on a list in Saudi Arabia for writing about this film. Khashoggi’s story is one that all journalists and advocates for democracy should hold close to their hearts.