The Dissident

 

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A film about a tragic victim which mounts the case for the prosecution against the perpetrator.

 
Dissident, The

  

The recent release Assassins looks set to be one of the best documentaries of 2021 but already it has a close rival in that field, Bryan Fogel's The Dissident. However, it's not just quality that encourages one to compare these two works for they have far more than that in common. Assassins dealt with the killing of Kim Jong-nam in 2017, studied the two women accused and pursued investigations that indicated that the victim's half-brother, Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, was the man behind the assassination. The murder at the heart of The Dissident is that of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 which took place in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. Here again the film investigates what really happened, considers the background and in this case ultimately concludes that, despite his denials, Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's crown prince, was the man behind it. Even more forcefully than Assassins, The Dissident presents the evidence uncovered in a manner that amounts to a forthright indictment and as such it is a gripping and important document.

 

Of these two films, The Dissident is the one that favours a music score calculated to play up the drama. That is not a style which readily wins my own approval, but in this instance the narrative is so absorbing in its own right that I accepted it. If there is a weakness here it lies not in the music but in the fact that the film lasts for almost two hours and that it features in the last half-hour footage that includes a flashback to 2014 which does not feel essential and is less forceful than what has gone before. Some shortening of this material or even its exclusion would have given the film greater strength for the general viewer.

 

That apart, however, The Dissident is handled very well indeed. The footage of Khashoggi entering the embassy from which he never walked out will be familiar to many, but what emerges here regarding both the murder itself and the wider suppression of opposing views by those in power in Saudi Arabia is absorbing in its detail. Those seen in this film include the victim's fiancée Hatice Cengiz, members of the CIA, representatives of the Washington Post (for whom Khashoggi worked) and a range of people from his own country. Prominent among the latter group are the noted Saudi dissident Omar Abdulaziz and Irfan Fidan, the Turkish Chief Prosecutor who concluded that he was dealing with a planned killing. Although several dissidents appear in the film, its title can nevertheless be taken as referring to Jamal Khashoggi himself - and that's so even if for many years he saw himself as a reformist rather than a dissident. With historical footage, audio material and fresh interviews all blended as part of the mix, The Dissident is assembled with a skill that makes the narrative a very powerful one. But, if unravelling the truth is an essential part of it, what hits home most memorably is its portrait of Khashoggi at sixty, a man who was in the best sense a patriot devoted to his country and hoping against hope that conditions there would improve. There is much footage of him included and it adds to the tragedy that he emerges as an extremely decent and likeable man. The Dissident is an exposé of his killers, but it is also a tribute to the man they killed.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Omar Abdulaziz, Fahrettin Altun, John O. Brennan. Hatice Cengiz, Irfan Fidan, Anthony J. Ferrante, Abdulhamit Gul, David Ignatius, Wadah Khanfar, Turan Kislacki, Fatih Oke, John Scott-Railton.

 

Dir Bryan Fogel, Pro Bryan Fogel, Thor Halvorssen, Mark Monroe and Jake Swantko, Screenplay by Bryan Fogel and Mark Monroe, Ph Jake Swantko, Ed Scott D.Hanson, James Leche, Wyatt Rogowski and Avner Shiloah, Music Adam Peters.

 

Orwell Productions/Diamond Docs/Human Rights Foundation-Altitude Film Distribution.
119 mins. USA. 2020. UK Rel: 6 March 2021 (Glasgow Film Festival). US Rel: 8 January 2021. Cert. 15.