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How the Jamal Khashoggi documentary ‘The Dissident’ lived to tell the tale

While trying to get the movie made, filmmaker Bryan Fogel was repeatedly stymied. Saudi Arabia, it turns out, has a lot of money invested in the American entertainment industry.

How the Jamal Khashoggi documentary ‘The Dissident’ lived to tell the tale
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Director Bryan Fogel’s 2017 documentary, Icarus, took on no less a foe than Vladimir Putin, won Netflix its first-ever Academy Award for a feature film, and drew worldwide acclaim. But when Fogel turned to make The Dissident, his probing documentary about the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, he couldn’t even find financial backers. “They said, Oh, you’re going to take on the Saudis? Good luck with that,” Fogel recalls. So, he spent hundreds of thousands of his own dollars and more than a year in Turkey gaining the trust of sources, including Khashoggi’s widow, before accepting funding from the Human Rights Foundation to complete the film. The Dissident received a standing ovation at the 2020 Sundance festival with an audience that included Netflix CEO Reed Hastings himself. But in the weeks after the screening, something unexpected happened—nothing. “We didn’t have a single offer from a single distributor,” Fogel says. “Not for a penny.” Fogel blames extensive business ties between American companies and Saudi Arabia, which is heavily invested in U.S. tech, media, and entertainment companies, holding stakes in Facebook, Disney, Live Nation and many others; it also backs SoftBank’s many-tentacled Vision Fund. The Dissident still managed to have a big impact: After members of the Biden administration screened it, the U.S. government declassified a bombshell intelligence report revealing its assessment that the kingdom’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, directly approved Khashoggi’s killing—and announced new visa restrictions banning people from the U.S. who engage in “counter-dissident activities.” But Fogel remains disappointed that Biden stopped short of sanctioning MBS himself. “You have somebody going, ‘Okay, yes, you did it . . . but I’m not going to punish you because we have too much business to do, too many allies, too many weapons to sell,'” Fogel says. “I think that’s the lesson in this overall.” Fogel ultimately made The Dissident available on-demand via platforms such as iTunes or Prime Video. “I went out there and risked my life,” says Fogel. “Everybody who helped me make this film [and I], we know the world wants to see it.”

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About the author

Christopher Zara is a senior staff news editor for Fast Company and obsessed with media, technology, business, culture, and theater. Before coming to FastCo News, he was a deputy editor at International Business Times, a theater critic for Newsweek, and managing editor of Show Business magazine

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