While Washington is all caught up in the twists and turns of a presidential impeachment, a drama of a far different sort is playing out in the snow-capped mountains of the American West.
Every year, in mid-to-late January, a mass migration occurs to the state of Utah. Filmmakers, critics, and more than a few movie stars gather in the ski resort town of Park City for the annual Sundance Film Festival — an endless array of screenings, discussion groups and socializing.
Founded decades ago by the movie icon Robert Redford, Sundance is a celebration of independent filmmaking, and a showcase for new talent. Some of the feature films that premier at Sundance go on to become major hits at the box office… some of the documentaries go on to change hearts and minds.
Such is the case with a documentary called “The Dissident,” which had its world premiere at Sundance. Its subject: the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
The work of Academy Award-winning director Bryan Fogel, “The Dissident” was one of the most-eagerly awaited films at Sundance. Early reviews of the documentary make clear it did not disappoint. The movie industry journal Variety called it “an eye-opening thriller brew of corruption, cover-up, and real-world courage.”
In truth, though, Fogel’s film was making news even before Sundance by pushing UN human rights investigators to release a report in which they concluded with “medium to high confidence” that the phone of amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos had likely been hacked by a malicious file sent from the personal WhatsApp account of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
The connection, of course, is the Washington Post — the newspaper that Bezos owns… the place where Khashoggi found a journalistic home-in-exile after fleeing Saudi Arabia… and the media corporation that is fighting for the truth about his murder.
It’s just one of the developments that thrust “The Dissident” into the spotlight at Sundance — where it played to standing ovations from cheering audiences.
Fogel described the appeal of the movie during an interview with The Post conducted while he was putting the finishing touches on the film.
“This is a story that has a distant repressive regime,” he said. “It has a slain journalist. It has a fiancee waiting for love. It has American complicity. It ticks all the boxes.”
Khashoggi, a contributing columnist at The Post, walked into the Saudi consulate on October 2, 2018, to pick up documents related to his upcoming marriage to a Turkish citizen, Hatice Cengiz. She waited outside. He never returned.
The US Central Intelligence Agency later concluded that Mohammad bin Salman personally ordered the killing. The Crown Prince, who initially denied any Saudi role in the murder, later changed his story and said it was carried out by his government but not under his orders.
“The Dissident” dramatically details the plot to kill Khashoggi, including interviews with Istanbul police officials who’d gotten hold of the audio recording of his murder. It also follows the crackdown on Saudi free speech advocates through the eyes of one man — Omar Abdulaziz, a young Saudi activist who now lives in exile in Canada, where he worked with Khashoggi to launch a pro-democracy twitter account.
“Whenever I remember him, I feel I have to do more,” Abdulaziz says in the film. “I don’t want to fail him.”
Neither does Bryan Fogel.
In an interview with the Associated Press after the movie’s Sundance premiere, the director of “The Dissident” said he hopes his documentary forces all of us to take a hard look at the Saudi regime.
“I hope that this film will make other countries, their government and business leaders reassess their relationship with Saudi Arabia until they reform,” said Fogel. “As much money as there is, when you have people sitting in prisons for tweeting, when you have women arrested and tortured for driving, it’s very hard to look the other way.”
“The Dissident” was, fittingly enough, financed by the Human Rights Foundation — a non-profit based in New York. Fogel still needs someone to buy the film for general distribution in theaters and/or streaming. Speaking on stage after the movie’s Sundance premiere, he urged distributors not to be scared by the possibility of a backlash from Riyadh.
“In my dream of dreams, distributers will stand up to Saudi Arabia,” he said.
What about Amazon? Might it buy the film for international distribution given the Jeff Bezos connection?
“I hope so,” Fogel said. “I’m open to any global powerful distributor that’s going to take this film seriously.”
If a distribution deal is reached, critics who saw the film at Sundance agree with Fogel and his production team that “The Dissident” could have a huge impact. As The Post’s own headline put it: “Film on Khashoggi Killing Could Shake the Saudi’s World.”
That article featured a stunning photo of Hatice Cengiz, her back to the camera, staring at the barricades surrounding the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
She is the compelling human face and voice of this film — the fiancee who waited for the man she loved while he was being brutally murdered inside what was supposed to be a peaceful diplomatic compound.
Since his death, she has been campaigning for answers and accountability on his behalf.
“I’m happy because this film will keep alive the story,” Cengiz told the AP at Sundance. “This film helped me to continue this fighting as a human, as a woman, as a victim.”
At the end of the documentary, Cengiz addresses her late fiancee, mourning “a world of politics devoid of your ideas.”
But when you really think about it, “The Dissident” is keeping those ideas alive.
“There’s so much pain from this story, but there’s a lot of power that has come from it,” Bryan Fogel told the AP.
“Look what his murder — as horrendous as it was — has done to shine the light on other human rights abuses, to shine the light on what the Saudis were doing in regards to repressing free speech. I hope if Jamal was looking down, he’d be very proud to see he didn’t die in vain.”