Day 6·Q&A

The Dissident tries to 'give justice' to Jamal Khashoggi's murder: director

Bryan Fogel's The Dissident sheds light on the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was allegedly by his own government.

Bryan Fogel's documentary film covers the killing of the Saudi journalist.

Bryan Fogel's The Dissident sheds light on Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who was allegedly killed by the Saudi government. (Yasin Akgul/AFP/Getty Images)

Director Bryan Fogel said his latest film about the murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi explores a story he felt had to be told.

"I came to know [Khashoggi's] fiance and Omar Abdulaziz, the young Saudi dissident who actually lives in Montreal and is under the protection of Canada. And through them, I felt impassioned to see if I could take this film on, and hopefully give justice to Jamal's story and his tragic murder," he told Day 6's Brent Bambury.

The Dissident, which Fogel wrote and directed, investigates Khashoggi's murder in the Saudi consulate in Turkey on Oct. 2, 2018, allegedly by his own government.

Fogel is best known for his Oscar-winning 2017 documentary, Icarus, which uncovered the biggest doping scandal in sports history.

The Dissident premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 24, 2020, and was released in a limited release on Dec. 25.

Fogel spoke to Day 6 about The Dissident and the impact of Khashoggi's murder. Here is part of their conversation.

This film, it's an intimate, intense account of what happened to Jamal Khashoggi. Why was it so important for you to make The Dissident?

Coming out of Icarus put me in a mindset that the next project that I wanted to take on needed to check certain boxes … regarding human rights and freedom of press.

One of his friends said to me ... that Jamal was the last martyr of the Arab Spring.- Bryan Fogel, documentary filmmaker

In those first few weeks of October 2018, myself, as I believe much of the world, was captivated and enraged by this horrendous murder of a Washington Post journalist that had walked into his own consulate seeking marriage papers. And as I dug into this story, I saw that, first of all, Jamal was being painted as Muslim Brotherhood, as an ISIS sympathizer, as a terrorist sympathizer, all these things that just were not true, but that were feeding the false narrative of Mohammed bin Salman and Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi government said and did a lot of things to try to cover this up, but they did leave this trail behind  there's a recording of what happened that day. For you, what was the most shocking thing that was revealed about what the Saudis did to Jamal Khashoggi?

Just the planning and orchestration of this crime, from flying over a 15-man kill team in private jets, to sweeping the consulate for bugs two days before — which was unsuccessful because there was still that bug there in the media room — to the brazen brutality of this crime. All of it was shocking. 

But I think perhaps the most shocking thing is, even though they got caught in the sense that we found out what happened, to this day there has been no justice, punishment or sanctions from members of the G20 or any number of big businesses, corporations and media companies that are still engaged in doing business and accepting investment from Saudi Arabia.

Fogel says Khashoggi believed that Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (pictured) and the kingdom could be doing better and that voices of dissent should be heard. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

I remember reading about, when this film was first shown at Sundance Film Festival in January 2020, a huge reaction from the audience there and this sense that something was happening, that there was momentum, that this was part of something bigger. Did you feel that then?

Hillary Clinton was at our premiere and we received multiple standing ovations. To then, literally, leave without a single offer from any major streamer, studio or distributor. 

Every last one of them were more concerned with their subscriber growth, with their shareholder accountability, with their investments that they may or may not have within the kingdom, than they were in helping to shine a light on human rights and this horrendous murder. 

But even more so, that story of Omar Abdulaziz. This is a man who, to this day, his brothers are sitting in a Saudi jail, having been tortured without charges. And thousands upon thousands of Saudis are sitting in Saudi jails, or have been executed or have been beheaded for doing nothing more than essentially voicing an opinion of dissent against the kingdom. 

Omar Abdulaziz was an activist and Jamal was a journalist. They came together on this plan, the hashtag "what do you know about bees." It was flooding the Saudi Twitter feeds with information about the regime and about what they wanted to get out there. 

At one point in the film, Abdulaziz says that it was Khashoggi's involvement with that movement that [prompted] the Saudis to cross the line and end up killing him. Do you think he's right?

I think it would be naive to say it was just that. Clearly, if you understood how important Twitter is to Saudi Arabia, that it has been the kingdom's way to control public opinion, it certainly gave one more reason. 

But Jamal was also writing negatively about [U.S. President Donald] Trump in the Washington Post. He was outspoken that Mohammed bin Salman and the kingdom could be doing better, that voices of dissent were valid and should be heard, and that no one man should rule. 

I think all these compounding factors cost him his life.

Bryan Fogel (left) and Khashoggi's fiancé, Hatice Cengiz, attend the The Dissident photocall during the 16th Zurich Film Festival at Opera House on October 2 in Zurich. (Getty Images for ZFF)

I was always struck by the fact that [Khashoggi] was an optimist. He was frustrated, but an optimist all the same, and he seemed to just be convinced that there could be change made there. I wonder if in putting this film together and having this time with so many of these players, do you think his death is a signal that maybe Jamal was wrong?

One of his friends said to me, and it's not my place to say this, that Jamal was the last martyr of the Arab Spring, meaning that he looked at the Arab Spring with great hope. Not that he was supporting Muslim Brotherhood or not that he was supporting some of the ideals. But he was supporting the idea of democracy, that the people in that region could have a say and a voice.

In Jamal's death, the positive to have come from this is that the world is no longer blind to what is going on in Saudi Arabia, no longer blind to who [Mohammed bin Salman] is, because for that period in 2018 when he came to the U.S., we all believed that he was this great, kind, young reformer, to then learn that, according to those who knew him, he was about as maniacal as they came. 

While you might have businesses being willing to take his money and do business with him, I think once you're a murderer, you're always a murderer.

Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Pedro Sanchez. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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