Movie Review: The Dissident


“the intentional killing of an unarmed or disarmed person by government agents acting in their authoritative capacity and pursuant to government policy or high command”

At about 1 pm on October 2, 2018, author and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul to arrange for a document that would certify that he was divorced so that he could marry his fiancée, Turkish scientist Hatice Cengiz. Figuring that it would only take a few minutes, Cengiz waited for him outside on the street. Twelve hours later, she was still waiting. Oscar-winning film director and producer, Bryan Fogel’s (ICARUS), new film, THE DISSIDENT, takes a hard look at what became of Khashoggi and how Saudi Arabia’s deputy prime minister and heir-designate to the throne, Mohammed bin Salman, is actively engaging in a campaign to silence his country’s critics.

THE DISSIDENT frames its story around Saudi activist and video blogger Omar Abdulaziz. In 2014, Abdulaziz was a student living in Montreal when his scholarship was cancelled by the Saudi government after his criticized them. Knowing that he couldn’t return home without ending up in jail or worse, he applied for refugee status, which he received from the Canadian government. Since officially becoming a dissident, he has become more vocal in his criticism of his home country and its leaders, slowly building a following on Twitter. (Apparently 40 percent of the online Saudi population is on that social media platform – a percentage that’s higher than anywhere else in the world!) Khashoggi became a follower early on and the two of them struck up a friendship. In 2018, Abdulaziz’s phone was hacked by the Saudi government using sophisticated spying software it had purchased from Israel. (Politics makes strange bedfellows!) Once hacked, the Saudis were able to “listen in”, as it were, on his conversations with Khashoggi. After Khashoggi let his interlopers know that he was going to be at their consulate in Turkey, the wheels were set in motion to ensure that he would never speak out against their leadership again.

The film, which covers the gruesomeness of his murder in great detail, is not for the squeamish. While it’s fascinating that the Turks’ audio surveillance of the consulate was so meticulous, more incredible is that the Saudis just didn’t care who was listening in on their activities. Unfortunately, history has shown that the Saudis were correct not to care. While the US Congress and Senate voted to withhold the sale of advanced military equipment to the Saudi government, then President Trump vetoed the bill and the US$8 billion deal went ahead. Equally shocking is that the G20 met in Buenos Aires just over a month after the murder with Mohammed bin Salman in attendance. MBS knows that the West will continue propping up his government because they see Saudi Arabia as the counterbalance to Iran. So what if a troublesome journalist gets bumped off?

Abdulaziz, meanwhile, knows that he’s high up on the MBS’ hit list but he’s not going down without a fight. He’s well aware that the government has set up a troll farm where an army of keyboard “ants” sits in front of computer screens, attacking dissidents like him and working hard to shift opinion in the country toward the government. Don’t believe me? Check out all the negative comments about this film that are posted on IMDb. In response, Abdulaziz has created his own keyboard army of “bees” that supports his efforts in the same way. So far, he’s winning the war but Abdulaziz knows that the situation can turn deadly at any moment. His two brothers are currently under house arrest.

THE DISSIDENT is available now on Netflix. It’s sobering stuff and certainly gives viewers pause for thought that as spyware becomes more sophisticated and pervasive, state-sponsored executions of those who dare to challenge the status quo can and will happen elsewhere. Expect it to be nominated for an Oscar award and so it should.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, January 29th, 8:30 am HK time!

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