The Dissident (2020)

On the 2nd of October 2018, the news travelled the globe at the speed of light about a man who went into a Saudi consulate and was never heard from again. In the hours and days that followed, I am sure we have all been paying attention – to a varying degree – at how this crisis unfolded. After all, stuff like this doesn’t happen every day and when it does, it often evades public scrutiny. As it quickly turned out, all speculations were true. Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered and dismembered in a Saudi consulate, likely at the orders coming from the very top of the government. And I am equally certain that many of us were asking the same questions: who the hell was this man? Why was he important? And why should I care? 

Let’s just say that it was extremely difficult to extract honest and succinct answers from the media coverage of this event and its immediate aftermath. A lot of it was covered in thick layers of editorializing, politically-charged opinion, impromptu sabre rattling and semi-educated hypothesizing. To call this situation chaotic would probably be a decent enough approximation.  Only now we get to educate ourselves a bit more reliably from decently written Wikipedia entries, analytical features and… documentaries like this one, which capitalizes on one of the primary pillars of non-fiction filmmaking – education and information.  

Bryan Fogel’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning Icarus collates quite a lot of the media noise surrounding Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination and extracts a handful of important narrative strands an interested viewer would require to appraise this crisis and perhaps find some answers to the multitude of questions left dangling by sensationalist media who were more interested in chasing saucy headlines than to inform their audiences/readers in a more structured way. Buzzwords like ‘dissident’, ‘exile’ and ‘political refugee’ were dispensed casually to describe Khashoggi and delineate a newsworthy political narrative with little consideration towards delving deeper into the substance of why Khashoggi was given such monikers in the first place. After all, the news cycle is relentless and fast-paced which means there’s very little space for nuance and detail that is so desperately needed for anyone to comprehend the gravity of what happened.  

In that regard, Fogel’s The Dissident succeeds on all fronts as it takes the time to explain exactly not only what happened to Khashoggi, but why it happened in the first place and why it is important to me as a politically switched-on human being. The film connects quite a few important dots and gives the viewer a decent enough rundown of the work Khashoggi was doing as a journalist, political activist and a staunch critic of the Saudi regime. Fogel even goes a few steps further and introduces intriguing connections between this assassination, imprisonment of other Saudi activists and even the hacking of Jeff Bezos’ smartphone that made the headlines at some point as well. He presents a reasonably researched case as to why Khashoggi’s murder is not just a historical footnote or an accident where the world of international espionage spilled over into the mundane reality. It is a historical event of sizeable proportions, whose magnitude will only be fully appraised in a century or so. It is a reminder that the world of high-level politics can be treacherous and violent.  

And that’s all well and good if information is all you’re after because The Dissident offers very little beyond this primary mission. It absolutely succeeds as a competently assembled lecture on international politics, dangers of clandestine activism and the sheer power of cyber-intelligence in the universe of social media. But despite positioning a pair of characters at its forefront, Khashoggi’s bride-to-be whose partner was brutally taken away from her and a young Saudi activist whose involvement with Khashoggi likely got him killed in the first place, the film struggles with its dramatic development. It’s a bit of a halfway house between a piece of true crime investigative journalism and a historical account of a conspiracy that somehow misses out on capturing the suspense of its subject matter. That is perhaps somewhat influenced by the simple fact Khashoggi’s murder is a matter of public record and – at least superficially – some of us have an idea where the film would go, but even the film’s inarguable revelations fail to elicit a strong emotional response with the viewer.  

This is by no means an indication that the film is a failure, but rather a gentle reminder that as far as documentaries go, The Dissident prefers to stay within the comfort zone of the formula of a competent information dump. And that’s more than enough because as it turns out, a lot can be learned from this film. It is a triumph of a matter-of-fact journalism that treats its cinematic form in the most utilitarian way; substantively rich, yet visually workaday.       

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