Delivered with the breakneck pacing and paranoid edge of a Tony Scott thriller, Icarus director Bryan Fogel’s gripping doc paints a deeply troubling picture of a world where tyrannical regimes can spy on, imprison and even murder their own citizens with impunity – even on foreign soil.
The 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul was startling front page news at the time. He was a long-time critic of his country’s ruling prince Mohammed bin Salman – better known by his initials ‘MBS’ – whose international profile as a Washington Post writer afforded him no protection. The barely competent Saudi cover-up is forensically charted here, and it speaks of a regime that either didn’t care if it got caught or that actively wanted to send a message, Mob-style.
Khashoggi, who is remembered by his fiancée Hatice Cengiz in moving interviews, was fearless in speaking truth to power. He channelled the energy of the Arab Spring into articles calling out the Saudi regime for its corruption and for suppressing freedom of speech. They made him so unpopular with the rulers of his homeland, he had to flee to Washington DC. But they also inspired younger, social media-savvy dissidents like Omar Abdulaziz, an ally of Khashoggi who exudes raw moral courage as he recounts close shaves with intel wonks in Canada and siblings jailed back home.
With its glitchy visual stylings and a treasure trove of surveillance footage, including audio transcripts of the murder itself, the Hollywood thriller The Dissident most resembles is Tony Scott’s 1998 gem Enemy of the State. Khashoggi’s gradual journey from trusted inside man at the Saudi court to exiled pariah on its hit list is charted in recorded phone calls, WhatsApp messages and slick CG graphics that take us into a terrifying matrix of Saudi troll armies (‘flies’), dissident counter-trolls (‘bees’), and state-of-the-art hacking technology.
Will Smith himself couldn’t have fought off the 15-man hit squad Riyadh sent to kill him, and there’s something tragic about hearing this middle-aged man’s final words – even read off a transcript – as his killers sprung their trap. The murder and its cover-up come across as hamfisted and squalid. Mercifully, The Dissident keeps the audio tapes themselves locked away.
This powerful film also asks what it is to be a dissident, and what it takes. A state of permanent limbo is Fogel’s conclusion; and not just between homeland and land of exile, but between life and death. He investigates the tools a regime like Saudi Arabia has at its disposal to intimidate and silence critics, and concludes that social media – and Twitter especially – is now more easily utilised to oppress than liberate. Even Jeff Bezos, world’s second richest man and Khashoggi’s erstwhile employer at The Washington Post, is targeted.
And what of the culprits? Depressingly, for all the cast-iron evidence spelt out by the UN, CIA and Turkish government bigwigs interviewed here, the final word goes to Donald Trump. ‘Well, will anybody really know?’ he says of the killers’ identity, fresh from signing off another shipment of weapons to Saudi Arabia. Welcome to geopolitics 101.
Premieres at the Glasgow Gilm Festival on Mar 6 and the Dublin International Film Festival on Mar 13.