Directed by: Bryan Fogel
Premise: A documentary about the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The film alleges that Khanshoghi was murdered at the behest of Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.
What Works: The Dissident is essentially a true crime documentary on an international scale and the filmmakers effectively lay out the details of the story while also characterizing the people involved and exploring political and cultural subtopics. The documentary’s primary aim is to tell us who Jamal Khashoggi was and what happened to him and the filmmakers accomplish that with the deft storytelling of a dramatic thriller. As explained in The Dissident, Khashoggi was a government insider turned commentator who became disillusioned with the increasing authoritarianism of the Saudi Arabian government. He was forced to flee the country and continued to speak out against the Saudi government as a newspaper columnist but Khashoggi was lured to a Saudi Arabian embassy in Turkey where he was murdered by government officials connected to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The film provides a sense of who Khashoggi was and the principles that motivated him, namely integrity and self-determination. The Dissident functions effectively as a true crime story but it’s more than that. The filmmakers put Khashoggi’s death in a context that reveals larger and more troubling truths about Saudi Arabia and international politics. The film claims that the Arab Spring, which had inspired populist revolutions throughout the Middle East, caused paranoia in the Saudi Arabian government and Khashoggi’s death was as much about silencing him as it was about intimidating other critics and governments. The Dissident is a devastating depiction of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The documentary makes a convincing case that he ordered Khashoggi’s murder and the Crown Prince comes across as a threat not only to dissenting Saudi citizens but to anyone who dares speak out against the country’s government, regardless of where they live.
What Doesn’t: The Dissident explains how the Saudi Arabian government has weaponized social media against dissenting voices through the use of troll farms, referred to in the country as “flies.” Saudi activists have created their own social media network referred to as “bees.” To visualize this, This Dissident includes an animated sequence that literalizes flies and bees fighting. It gets the point across but the scene looks silly and is out of step with the style of the rest of the movie.
Bottom Line: The Dissident is a riveting true crime story and an alarming portrait of Saudi Arabia’s leadership. The film tells its story well and pays tribute to the late Jamal Khashoggi while also casting an unsettling web of politics, technology, and state-sponsored violence.
Episode: #840 (February 21, 2021)