Parallels between director Bryan Fogel’s first two feature documentaries, Icarus and The Dissident, abound. The former won the Special Jury Prize for documentary filmmaking at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, going on to win the Best Feature Documentary Oscar the following year. The Dissident too debuted to critical acclaim at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and is now considered by many to be a prime Oscar contender.
Icarus played like a kind of hybrid documentary/geopolitical thriller, exposing Russia’s state-sponsored Olympic doping program through revelations from Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, a scientist at the center of that cheating scandal and a prime whistleblowing target of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Dissident too is a unique documentary thriller and a rebuke of authoritarian power. The film delves into the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, Turkey, on October 2, 2018. With a mix of never-before-seen footage and unprecedented access to those closest to the story--including Khashoggi’s fiance Hatice Cengiz, Turkish police and prosecutors, and a young Saudi Arabian dissident, Omar Abdulazia, whom Khashoggi was working with--Fogel’s film chronicles the heinous murder of Khashoggi, a principled reformer who sought to create a more just and open society in his Saudi homeland. Evidence points directly to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmon as being culpable but he has orchestrated an international cover-up fueled by wealth, tyranny and advanced technology.
Fogel and his team went to great lengths to not only tell Dr. Rodchenkov’s story in Icarus but to protect him against real threats of harm and retribution for going public with his knowledge. Similarly Fogel and his compatriots have committed to being true to Khashoggi’s story and taking action to help keep safe sources such as Abdulazia who are vocal in their calls for justice.
However, whereas Icarus gained a major global streaming platform in Netflix, The Dissident has not been able to do so--despite earning a standing ovation at Sundance and plaudits elsewhere, and having a stamp of legitimacy and recognized artistry that comes from an Oscar-winning documentarian who’s demonstrated great acumen in handling important stories that need to be told.
The Dissident made a modest theatrical debut--in large part due to the pandemic--last month on Christmas Day. And the documentary becomes available via Video on Demand today (1/8). The theatrical run and VOD release both come through Briarcliff Entertainment.
But the unwillingness of major media companies/streamers to give exposure to The Dissident could be akin to the reluctance in the world at large to push back against powerful, wealthy, lucrative interests. Fogel told SHOOT that his biggest takeaway from The Dissident is that now more than two years after the murder of Khashoggi, there’s still been “zero accountability--no justice, sanctions, punishment for this horrific murder. What we have seen and what has stuck with me is the willingness of not only the U.S. and the current administration, but also members of the G20, countless corporations, tech companies and businesses to continue to take investments from and do business with a country that has shown itself to be one of the world’s worst human rights violators. Over 800 people have been beheaded in the (Saudi) kingdom last year, most of whom are young men who voiced dissent.”
Relative to the difficulty he’s had in landing a worldwide streaming home for The Dissident, Fogel cited recent New York Times coverage of major platforms putting the kibosh on content that they deemed as detrimental to their business prospects or otherwise.
Fogel had been hopeful, for example, that Amazon might be the global streaming launchpad for The Dissident. On the surface, he acknowledged, it would seem they would have a keen interest in doing so. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos back in 2013 bought The Washington Post, for which Khashoggi served as a columnist, commentator and journalist. Bezos is also seen in The Dissident attending a memorial service for Khashoggi marking the one-year anniversary of his death. The documentary also chronicles how Bezos and Khashoggi’s associates, including Abdulazia, had their smartphones hacked by the Saudi government. Journalists have reported that Bezos’ phone was likely infiltrated through a WhatsApp message from the Saudi Crown Prince himself. And part of the story told in The Dissident is that info procured through the phone hacking of Abdulazia may have led to the grisly murder of Khashoggi.
Fogel said he could not definitively explain why major streaming platforms have shied away from The Dissident. But like other governments and corporations, there may be a fear of retribution or smear campaigns against those who elect to help tell this story. Fogel reasoned that the hacking of Bezos sent a chill through Wall Street and corporate America relative to the public disclosure of sensitive personal and business information. “If you can hack Bezos, who can’t you hack? he asked rhetorically. And then there are media outlets that covet being able to access audiences in Saudi Arabia and their ally countries. Alienating the powers that be in those marketplaces may not be construed as good business. So some platforms might choose to cast a blind eye towards the issues and injustices chronicled in The Dissident story.
That arguably has been the case all the way up to the heights of U.S. leadership. For example, when asked why he overruled congress and allowed arm sales to Saudi Arabia even in the face of the Khashoggi murder and human rights violations, President Donald Trump on Meet the Press in summer of 2019 said, “They buy massive amounts, $150 billion worth of military equipment that, by the way, we use. We use that military equipment. And unlike other countries that don’t have money and we have to subsidize everything. So Saudi Arabia is a big buyer of America product. That means something to me. It’s a big producer of jobs.”
Collaborators, trust, cause for optimism
Director/writer/producer Fogel assembled a stellar team for The Dissident, including such key collaborators from Icarus as writer/producer Mark Monroe and DP Jake Swantko. For The Dissident Swantko also served as a producer, his first time in that role on a feature documentary.
Fogel recalled being in search of a DP for Icarus, connecting with Swantko and developing an instant rapport, then a deep abiding trust and friendship. “He’s my younger brother,” said Fogel who immediately turned to Swantko for The Dissident. Fogel lauded Swantko’s producer skills and described his camerawork and what he shot as “extraordinary.”
Among Monroe’s many attributes, related Fogel, is an amazing talent for assembling an ensemble of--and working with--editors. A new team of editors was brought in for The Dissident, including James Leche, Wyatt Rogowski, Avner Shiloah and Scott D. Hanson. Given the heavy volume of shooting while trying to meet a tight timeline, Fogel said he’s found that working with multiple editors is prudent, creating a proper workflow.
But all these efforts wouldn’t have mattered if not for the trust building done by Fogel in order to get The Dissident off the ground. He and Swatko spent the better part of a year in different locales earning the trust of such key entities as the Turkish authorities, and pivotal individuals like Cengiz and Abdulazia. And, noted Fogel, these critical sources wouldn’t have entrusted him with their stories if it hadn’t been for Icarus, which exemplified a steadfast commitment to the truth, and a profound caring for the wellbeing of those involved. “Had Icarus not been made, and ultimately if not for the wonderful accolades it received, there would have been no way we could have gotten the opportunity to make The Dissident,” affirmed Fogel who added that those “seeing that film and seeing how we protected Gregory, worked with him, helped to cement that trust needed (for The Dissident).”
Fogel remains optimistic that The Dissident will find a wide audience. He hopes that a number of viewers too will remember Icarus, prompting them and others to seek out The Dissident on VOD, with word of mouth bringing others into the audience fold. The documentary plays in many respects like a scripted feature thriller. Fogel has his fingers crossed that audiences will “be riveted and wish to bring about change. That desire for change is the foundation with people calling upon leaders of the world to stand up to authoritarian regimes such as this.”
This is the second of a 16-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 93rd Academy Awards will be announced on Monday, March 15, 2021. The 93rd Oscars will be held on Sunday, April 25, 2021.