NICASIO, Calif. – The killing of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 was a historic event, a brutal wake-up call about the fragility of free speech under a supposedly reformist Saudi Arabian leader.
Now it’s poised to turn into something else: a cinematic event.
On Friday, the Oscar-winning director Bryan Fogel, who previously made the Russian-doping investigation “Icarus,” unveiled a documentary about Khashoggi, called “The Dissident,” at the Sundance Film Festival.
Layered with news, drama and moral excoriation, the film not only unpacks one of the most shocking events in modern Middle East-U.S. relations but is likely to shine an uncomfortable spotlight on both Saudi Arabia and the profit-minded American companies that do business with it.
The movie already has influenced developments by pushing the United Nations to release its own conclusions about the alleged Saudi hacking of a phone belonging to Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos. One of those investigators, Agnes Callamard, who is interviewed in the film, believes that this is only the beginning of its impact.
“It’s far more powerful than any report I can write in terms of delivering the story to a great number of people,” Callamard said. “I don’t think the court of public opinion is the same as a judicial proceeding,” she added, “but it is a form of accountability.”
Fogel described the story’s appeal to him this month as he did postproduction work on the film at Skywalker Ranch in Northern California.
“This is a story that has a distant repressive regime,” he said. “It has a slain journalist. It has a fiancée waiting for love. It has American complicity. It ticks all the boxes.”
Post columnist Khashoggi was killed Oct. 2, 2018, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in an act the CIA believes was ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“The Dissident” tells that story, along with the complicated quest for the truth in the 16 months since. It features a slew of details from Turkish investigators alleging how the killing was committed and covered up; on-camera interviews with figures like Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz; and a parallel story of Khashoggi’s fellow dissident taking refuge in Quebec, who the film shows to be subjected to similar targeting.
Mohammed has said he takes “full responsibility” for Khashoggi’s killing because it was perpetrated by Saudi government employees, but he has denied ordering it himself.
In a blistering final section, “The Dissident” also takes to task the American companies that continue to work with Saudi Arabia, highlighting the role of Western business interests in empowering Mohammed.
The movie could inadvertently prove its own point. Independently financed by the Human Rights Foundation, “The Dissident” was screened at Sundance for prospective buyers. Given the importance of oil-rich Saudi Arabia, it remains an open question which global streamers or studios will jump at the chance to acquire it.
The fallout from Khashoggi’s killing was intense. Many companies pulled out of an economic forum scheduled for late that fall, while Hollywood firm Endeavor, the holding company that controls a large talent agency as well as the mixed martial arts promoter UFC and other entities, returned a $400 million investment.
But it was also brief. Many companies that did not attend Mohammed’s forum in 2018 returned in force in 2019.
“I saw how little has really changed after Khashoggi,” Fogel said. “And it’s angered me.”