New documentary The Dissident details Jamal Khashoggi’s gruesome assassination, but avoids deeper questions
Michael McCaffrey is a writer and cultural critic who lives in Los Angeles. His work can be read at RT, Counterpunch and at his website mpmacting.com/blog. He is also the host of the popular cinema podcast Looking California and Feeling Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter @MPMActingCo
The Dissident is a new documentary, available on video-on-demand, that chronicles the infamous assassination of Washington Post journalist and Saudi-reform activist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey in 2018.
The film, directed by Academy Award-winning documentarian Bryan Fogel, tells an important story, and yet it never quite feels like an important film. It isn’t a bad documentary, but it also isn’t great, and could’ve been much better.
The Dissident goes into gruesome detail about Khashoggi’s heinous and brutal murder and ultimately blames Saudi Crown Prince and Deputy Prime Minister, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) for the crime, but if you follow the news you already know, the majority of what the film details regarding the assassination and that MBS is little more than Tony Soprano in a keffiyeh, the lead thug in the royal Saudi thugocracy.
The movie doesn’t break any new ground and what it does report is presented in such an overwrought manner that it detracts from its impact.
Fogel’s directing approach is too slick for the movie’s own good, as he overwhelms the substance with a needlessly glossy visual style.
Fogel tries to transform the Khashoggi assassination into a spy thriller and love story rather than keeping it a genuine piece of investigative journalism, which is disappointing and detrimental to the film.
Another example of the film’s stylistic problem is one of the film’s main subjects, Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi dissident living in Montreal who became friends with Khashoggi and has made a name for himself as the host of an internet show about Saudi politics. Abdulaziz comes across as a little too polished to be trustworthy, so much so that when the film opens with a scene involving him, I literally thought it was a bad dramatic re-enactment. Unfortunately, Abdulaziz appears on camera to be less an earnest activist and more a dedicated self-promoter, and the documentary suffers because of it.
Another frustration was that the film seems intentionally obtuse when it comes to broader context.
For example, the film exposes Trump as being a vile and morally corrupt figure for his egregious kowtowing to the Saudis in the wake of the Khashoggi murder. Trump should be shamed for his disgusting behavior, but the film fails to point out that his cowardice regarding the Saudis does not make him unique among recent American presidents.
George W. Bush infamously bent over backwards to protect the Saudis after 9-11 (15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis), even going so far as to fly Saudis out of the US when all flights were grounded, and refusing to declassify the portions of the 9-11 Report that were damaging to the Saudi government.
Obama was no better, as in 2016 he vetoed a bill allowing families of 9-11 victims to sue the Saudi government (the veto was overridden by Congress).
Another contextual problem with the film was that its biggest story was neglected while hiding in plain sight. That story is Pegasus spyware, which was used to hack Abdulaziz and directly led to the murder of Khashoggi.
Pegasus was created by NSO Group, an Israeli cyberarms firm that claims its diabolical product is meant to target drug dealers and terrorists. But NSO sells Pegasus to tyrannical regimes in the Middle East that use it to round up dissidents and squelch dissent.
Pegasus is a crucial topic, but The Dissident only briefly touches upon it at the hour-and-twenty-minute mark of a two-hour film, and seems willfully blind to an angle of the story that demands deeper investigation. For example, why is an Israeli company aiding tyrannical Gulf States by tracking their opposition?
The film claims that MBS himself was directly involved in the Pegasus hacking of Jeff Bezos after Khashoggi’s murder, and following this hack the National Enquirer exposed Bezos’s extra-marital affair.Also on rt.com Khashoggi fiancee sues Saudi Crown Prince & 20 others for journalist’s killing in US court
If MBS could use Pegasus to hack the tech-savvy owner of Amazon, and The Washington Post, who is one of the richest and most powerful men on the planet…who else has he hacked? Who else has Israeli hacked with Pegasus? Have Trump or other American officials been hacked by Israel and/or Saudi Arabia using Pegasus?
Could Trump’s consistent acquiescence to the Saudis and Israel be a result of their obtaining compromising information on him through Pegasus? When the UAE and Bahrain officially recognized Israel in 2020, was it quid pro quo for Israel having sold Pegasus to them and the Saudis?
These are all the questions I had that were never addressed in The Dissident. Instead, the film spends an inordinate amount of time focusing on the grief of Khashoggi’s fiancé, which is heartbreaking to be sure, and not enough on the more substantial bigger picture.
It seems that Khashoggi’s assassination is the tip of the tyrannical iceberg, and The Dissident is either unable or unwilling to dip its toe into the deeper and darker waters to find out who, besides the despots in the Saudi royal family, is complicit in this particular crime and in more expansive crimes against humanity across the globe.
In conclusion, if you are unaware of the particulars of the Khashoggi murder, then The Dissident is a good place to get a stylized overview, but if you’ve followed the story then you’ll need to look elsewhere for relevant insights.
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.