Layered with news, drama and moral excoriation, the film not only examines one of the most shocking events in modern Middle East-U.S. relations, but it is also likely to shine an uncomfortable spotlight on both Saudi Arabia and the profit-minded American companies that do business with it.
The movie, viewed by The Washington Post, already has influenced developments this week by pushing the United Nations to release its conclusions about the alleged Saudi hacking of a phone belonging to Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos. One of those investigators, Agnès Callamard, who is interviewed in the film, considers this to be 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 told The Post in an interview. “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 last week as he worked on the film at Skywalker Ranch, the Northern California grounds where directors conduct postproduction work.
“This is a story that has a distant repressive regime,” he said. “It has a slain journalist. It has a fiancee waiting for love. It has American complicity. It ticks all the boxes.”
“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 such as Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancee, Hatice Cengiz; and a parallel story of Khashoggi’s fellow dissident taking refuge in Quebec, whom the film shows to be subjected to similar targeting.
A number of Post figures, including columnist David Ignatius, senior reporter Shane Harris and publisher Fred Ryan, appear in the movie. Fogel said The Post had no financial involvement in the film.
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” will screen 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.
Fogel made the movie to explore the consummate insider-turned-exile — Khashoggi at times was uncomfortable with the “dissident” label — who shed light on a government and in turn became one of its biggest targets. By taking a slick and almost thriller-like approach, Fogel hoped to attract a wide audience without sacrificing nuance.
Mohammed has said he takes “full responsibility” for the killing because it was perpetrated by Saudi government employees but has denied ordering it himself. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud called the U.N. report about the Bezos hacking “absurd” and “absolutely silly.”
Using transcripts and other evidence, “The Dissident” lays out the plan to kill Khashoggi, who died just days before his 60th birthday. The plan was allegedly designed by Saud al-Qahtani, then one of Mohammed’s chief advisers, and Salah Muhammed al-Tubaigy, the forensic doctor who allegedly worked out how to eliminate evidence. With grim specificity, Tubaigy is shown via transcript describing how to cut up Khashoggi’s body so it can be easily removed.
The body was never found, but Fogel cites Turkish investigators who say it was taken to an oven that had been bought and installed at the consul general’s house and burned. The consulate at that time also had purchased 70 pounds of meat at a local restaurant — ideal to burn and mask the smell of an incinerated corpse.
Tubaigy is believed to be one of five people the Saudis say were sentenced to death after a closed-door trial conducted by the Saudi government. Callamard objected to the proceedings, after which she tweeted the “masterminds … walk free.”
The film features extensive on-camera interviews with Omar Abdulaziz, a 28-year-old democracy activist who fled Saudi Arabia before the Khashoggi killing and lives in Montreal.
Abdulaziz recounts how agents of the crown prince threw his friends and relatives in jail while using both threats and enticements to try to get him to return to Saudi Arabia or visit one of its consulates — for what purpose he can only speculate.
Little known before the attack, Abdulaziz turns out to be a central player in the narrative. He and Khashoggi had collaborated to launch “the bees” — a democracy-minded Twitter offensive to counter Mohammed’s jingoistic troll farm known as “the flies.” Abdulaziz thinks this effort, along with $5,000 Khashoggi wired him to get it off the ground, cemented the decision to kill Khashoggi.
Since Khashoggi’s death, Abdulaziz has struggled with guilt. “Whenever I remember him, I feel I have to do more,” the activist says in the film. “I don’t want to fail him.”
There are parallels in Abdulaziz’s story to the main character in “Icarus,” Grigory Rodchenkov, the chemist who helped design the Russian doping plan before risking his life to blow the whistle on it in that Fogel film.
Fogel said the two movies are companion pieces of sorts, both growing out of his desire to use former insiders to show cutthroat behavior by bad state actors — a “real-time instead of a retrospective look at evil and the heroes who try to stop it.”
“Icarus” became not just a hit for Netflix but an activist cause for Fogel and his producing partners, who have since spent several years trying to keep Rodchenkov safe. The whistleblower remains in hiding in the United States years after the doping scandal broke.
Fogel sees a similar pattern here. Harsh Saudi tactics, he suggests, didn’t end with the killing of Khashoggi. The movie lays out in detail the hacking that continued, via the phone-trawling program Pegasus, of key figures in the West.
Chief among them is Bezos, whose Amazon had plans to build large data centers in Saudi Arabia — plans that stalled after the killing.
According to one of the U.N. investigators in the film, David Kaye, a seemingly innocuous video file that Mohammed sent to Bezos via WhatsApp in April 2018 — five months before Khashoggi’s death — probably contained Pegasus. Reams of data were then found to have been extracted from Bezos’s phone.
“It’s shocking they were able to hack someone like Jeff Bezos from a cybersecurity standpoint,” Fogel said. “But in light of what we know in the overall story and what they did to Jamal [Khashoggi] it makes perfect sense.”
The fallout from Khashoggi’s killing was intense. Many companies pulled out of a Saudi-hosted economic forum scheduled for late that fall, and the 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 Saudi investment.
But the backlash 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.”
This is one reason, he noted, he wished to spotlight them in the movie, even offering at the film’s end a list of companies still doing business in Saudi Arabia. (In the version The Post viewed, the company names had not been finalized.)
Fogel hopes as the movie is shown around the world, companies once again will feel pressure to back away from partnerships with the oil-rich nation. But pressure could go the other way — on companies not to do business with the film.
One obvious contender to buy “The Dissident” is Netflix. Fogel said he’d love to work with the company again; the feeling might be mutual, given Fogel helped the streamer win one of its first major Oscars two years ago.
But Netflix has a reputation for caving to Saudi Arabia. Last year, it pulled an episode of the American Muslim comedian Hasan Minhaj’s show “Patriot Act” after pressure from the Saudi government. The topic in question? Khashoggi.
Asked whether she anticipated pushback from any studios, Rena Ronson, the film’s sales agent at United Talent Agency, said, “Documentary films can often be politically and artistically controversial by nature, and the studios in the nonfiction game understand that and find value in being a platform for these stories.”
Netflix did not provide comment.
If the film does land a big distribution deal, the impact could be great. “The Dissident” makes visual and dramatic what had often been told largely in other formats. It portrays both the serious and graphic extent of the plot in new ways. Particularly chilling is following a man as he goes from trusting to wary to the dawning realization that he is about to be killed.
Central to the film’s influence will be Cengiz. Khashoggi is shown to have loved his fiancee dearly and wished urgently to marry her. (A marriage license was his reason for visiting the consulate.) She waited anxiously outside the consulate for Khashoggi to reappear. And it is she who has often carried the baton after his death.
Alternately bereft and resolute, Cengiz appears in key moments to provide a human access point for the viewer.
Cengiz is incredulous as she reflects on what happened.
“It never crossed my mind they could kill people in a consulate,” she says at one point. “I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it.”
Other times, her presence resonates simply by giving voice to what has been lost.
“What’s so difficult,” she says, imagining what she’d like to tell her late fiance, “is that you left people in a world of politics deprived of your ideas.”