PARK CITY, Utah — One of the more eagerly anticipated documentaries to come to the Sundance Film Festival this year was “The Dissident,” and it did not disappoint. It states unequivocally that informed people within the United Nations, CIA, and Turkish law enforcement believe that Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered at the direct command of Saudi Arabia’s Prince Muhammad bin Salman. World leaders, particularly US President Donald Trump, appear too worried about economic impact, the film concludes, to make any kind of accusation.
For 119 minutes (some of them as tense as a thriller, others a bit repetitive) Academy Award-winning director Bryan Fogel lays out a clear case, and also details just how “MBS” used social media and Israel-provided tech (namely the spyware known as Pegasus) to infiltrate and corner Saudi citizens of note who dared to speak against the kingdom.
“My dream of dreams,” Fogel said after the world premiere in Park City, Utah, “is for a distributor to give this the global release it deserves, to stand up to Saudi Arabia and honor Jamal Khashoggi and the freedom of the press.”
The Colorado-born, Jewish-American director’s previous work includes “Icarus,” about the Russian Olympic doping scandal, and, in a quite different tone, the hit play “Jewtopia.” He was also a stand-up comedian before working in documentary (there aren’t too many chuckles in “The Dissident”).
Fogel brought three of his subjects up from the audience to join him after the film. They were Mohamed Soltan, a human rights activist who spent close to two years in an Egyptian prison (and went on a 489-day hunger strike); Agnès Callamard, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary execution who led an inquiry into Jamal Khashoggi’s death; and Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancee who joined him on his second trip to the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, where he was brutally murdered.
The couple went, at first, to obtain documents so they could be married, but were told to return in five days time. A kill squad of 15 flew in on private jets, smothered and strangled him (it took seven-and-a-half minutes for him to die) and then chopped him up as a butcher would an animal. The gruesome details were recorded on audio. Thankfully, we do not hear them, but see an English language transcript.
Khashoggi was part of the state-run media for decades, but expanded his mindset after the 2011 Arab Spring. He soon found himself on the outs with the “family business” (e.g. King Salman and Prince Muhammad bin Salman) and found himself the target of Twitter trolls.
Fogel’s film does an excellent job first explaining the importance of Twitter in the kingdom (80% of the population are users) and the power struggle to keep the “right” topics trending. Fogel visualizes a headquarters for “the flies” — the not-quite-real users who smash “like” and unleash a flood of hate-clicks and abuse. Khashoggi eventually teams up with dissident Omar Abdulaziz, currently a refugee in Montreal, and helps form “the bees,” an online counter-force.
Abdulaziz was not at the Sundance premiere because the Canadian government felt it unwise for him to travel. He is a frequent recipient of death threats; his two brothers remain imprisoned in Saudi Arabia, despite not being activists themselves.
Abdulaziz is one of the more uniquely 21st century tragic figures of world events, in that it his “his fault,” in a way, that his friend Jamal was finally executed. It was his phone that was hacked.
Using the Pegasus spyware program, developed by the Israeli company NSO (which, according to Fogel in the post-screening discussion, only licenses its programs with the authorization of the Israeli Department of Defense), Saudi agents were able to tap into Abdulaziz’s entire life. It came through a phony notification from DHL, in which Abdulaziz clicked a link thinking he was receiving information about a package. The agents were then able to get into all his secure conversations, and could even turn his microphone on without his knowledge.
The film takes a bit of a tangent to show just how encompassing Pegasus is, and says that even Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, whose company Amazon owns the Washington Post where Khashoggi worked, got hacked via a WhatsApp link sent directly from Mohammad bin Salman himself. Bezos, to his credit, disassociated himself from MBS as soon as the Khashoggi story broke, and attended a memorial in Istanbul on the one year anniversary of his murder.
Using footage of Khashoggi himself (there’s one clip of him with a cat that is marvelous), as well as interviews with Abdulaziz and Hatice Cengiz that speak to the murdered journalist’s virtue and patriotic drive to make Saudi Arabia a better place, Fogel cuts again and again to the one individual who seems truly not to care a whit about all this: US President Donald J. Trump.
Even Republican Senators Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham seem appalled by the brazen act of killing, but we’re reminded that Trump vetoed a bill to halt the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the international scandal.
This is a movie that gets anyone who cares about decency angry, and perhaps a little frightened. If there are no repercussions for the Prince, what is he capable of next? And what will happen when he isn’t the man “behind” the king, but the king himself?
Perhaps most difficult to grapple with is the future of cyber espionage, and what part Israel will play in it. Fogel mentioned in his remarks that NSO’s Pegasus also played a role in targeting people closets the Mexican journalist Javier Valdez Cárdenas, who was killed by a drug cartel.
Early in the film Omar Abdulaziz comforts a worried colleague, as they put their lives on the line to combat their country for a higher righteousness. “God will forgive us,” he says, as he continues the fight.