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Thread: THE DISSIDENT (Bryan Fogel 2020)

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    Jul 2002
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    THE DISSIDENT (Bryan Fogel 2020)



    Jamal Khashoggi, his "real-life thriller," and his legacy

    Washington Post correspondent Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian in exile who boldly exposed his country's repression, was brutally murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul Oct. 2, 2018. It was a big story. Does anyone remember now? In case, here is a powerful reminder by recent Oscar winner Brian Fogel (for the 1018 Icarus, exposing successful Russian doping of Olympic athletes) with a new film, ripped from the headlines, but penetrating deeper. This isn't a trailblazing film. It's just notable for its thoroughness, good production values, the people it talks to, some surprising facts, and the quality of a thriller. It feels at times very much like the recent novels of John Le Carré. That sure sounds like enough to me.

    To be sure, Khashoggi for many is not forgotten at all. (This is a good portrait, incidentally, of his human warmth, his smile, his love of life. as well as his commitment to doing the work of a journalist.) He is a hero now, more than ever a beacon for the freedom and independence of citizens and journalists throughout the world - especially the Middle East. Jeff Bezos won't forget him. The world's richest man not only owns the Post, where as a correspondent for the paper Khashoggi's stories drew wide attention. Bezos also was quite friendly with Mohammad bin Salman, known as MBS, the young king of Saudi Arabia. who is now 35.

    And for his trouble, Bezos got his phone heavily hacked as a result of his chats on it with the king of Saudi Arabia. Even the world's richest man wasn't safe from the nefarious operations of the young Saudi King Mohammad bin Salman ("MBS" is his trendy-sounding name). MBS looked progressive, introducing concerts, movie theaters, a lift on the ban on women driving. But he stepped up the repression in other areas, notably freedom of speech. We learn a little about the Saudi royal family, and how MBS has more autonomy and fewer checks from his many brothers than his predecessors did.

    Khashoggi knew this, of course. This film reviews his remarkable life. As a Saudi journalist, he had been an insider (to be that, you have to be). But then his criticisms became more and more outspoken, and he could not go back to the country. We see that he gave up his whole family, wife and children, to settle in the US permanently. He could not go back. But after six years he had adjusted to his life here - except that he needed company.

    Jeff Bezos was with MBS, and they exchanged regular phone messages. The result? Bezos' phone was heavily invaded by the world's most powerful phone hacking spyware, Pegasus, bought by the Saudis from Israel and used massively. This film dips into the role of such equipment in quashing dissidents, and the Saudi's "Flies" army of fake news trolls to massively block free speech via Twitter, which it turns out eight out of ten of the cyber-intense Saudis uses. A key figure in this context though heard from only briefly, as if casually, is John Scott-Railton, a Senior Researcher at The Citizen Lab, who words on technological threats to civil society, including targeted malware operations. That's another film, or a dozen of them. As for Bezos
    exposed marital scandal, MBS no doubt wanted to punish him, via hack, for giving Khashoggi a place to work.

    What's perhaps most sobering here is that the truth came out pretty quickly, thanks to the Turks - their investigation of Khashoggi's mysterious disappearance from the Saudi consulate worked fast and literally went all the way up to the Turkish minister of justice - yet while the Saudi government sent over a dozen government- hired envoys to take part in the murder of Khashoggi's abduction, murder, and dismemberment and MBS's obvious inability to convincingly deny involvement from the top, only a handful of token prosecutions have taken place. We know, but we can't do anything, the Turks might say.

    The personalities in this film are wonderful. Much of it is narrated by the former director of Al Jazeera Wadah Khanfar, and we hear from other remarkable individuals like Ayman Nour, the dissident Egyptian presidential candidate, who got five years in jail for his trouble, but here he is. He was a friend of Khashoggi's. Then there are all the important Turkish law enforcement figures, eager to talk about their investigative work. This includes audio recordings and text transcripts of Khashoggi's murder. which is recreated so vividly that it may give you nightmares. Notoriously, there was a bone saw; his body was dismembered and burned like a piece of meet - supervised by a Saudi forensics expert.

    Importantly we hear from the US rapporteur Agnes Callamard, whose examination of the Turkish data on Khashoggi's murder gives it an international dimension; it is at this point that MBS became "toxic" in world opinion, except for tyrant-wannabes and oil money admirers like Donald Trump.

    But the more personal threads - the final touches to make this worthy of a Le Carrénovel - are a woman and a young man. The woman is Hatice Cengiz, sixty-year-old Khashoggi's younger fiancee, and the man is 27-year-old Saudi dissident living in asylum in Canada, Omar Abdulaziz Alzahrani, who take the blame for his friend's death. Omar taught Khasoshggi the importance of pursuing the battle for minds in social media. They jointly mounted a campaign of "Bees" to combat the "Flies" on Twitter. Hatice, who is a Muslim Turkish citizen deeply sympathetic to Khashoggi's views, was the reason why he entered that Saudi consulate - for papers to show he was not married, and could marry her. Hatice's conviction and loyalty show why Khashoggi fell in love with her. Omar Abdulaziz represents young dissident Saudi youth, committed, articulate, angry. He can't go back to Saudi Arabia either. One hopes he manages to steer clear of bone saws. Because as Kashoggi says early in the film, the king of Saudi Arabia governs by consensus, and eventually things will change.

    The Dissident, 119 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2020 and showed at a half dozen other festivals including Zurich, Aspen, and DOC NYC. US release Dec. 18, 2020, UK, Mar. 5, 2021. Metascore 85%. General release date Dec. 25, 2020.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 12-26-2020 at 12:43 AM.


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