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The Sundance premiere of The Dissident had all the trappings of a successful debut for a film seeking distribution: glowing reviews, the endorsement of personalities including Hillary Clinton and Alec Baldwin, and major industry figures populating the audience, including Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. But following the documentary’s first Park City screening in January, director Bryan Fogel — who in 2018 won an Oscar for Icarus, which Netflix distributed in the U.S. — heard crickets from distributors.
“Without going into behind-the-scenes details that I’m aware of, there was a unified front among the major global media companies, distributors, that they were not going to touch this film,” Fogel says in December.
The film, which chronicles the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul and its investigation, implicating the Saudi royal family, was eventually picked up by the new distribution company Briarcliff Entertainment and will be theatrically released Dec. 25, with a VOD release Jan. 8. But Hollywood’s reticence to pick it up, Fogel argues, proves one of The Dissident‘s points: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s importance in the global economy has prompted major companies and governments to “look the other way,” Fogel says, on human rights abuses — or at, least, to avoid poking the bear.
Interwoven with the narrative of Khashoggi’s murder in the film is testimony from Khashoggi’s fiancé, Hatice Cengiz; his friend, the Saudi dissident and refugee Omar Abdulaziz; and Turkish investigators, who provided the filmmakers with ghastly transcripts from inside the consulate on the day of the murder, as well as other documentary evidence. At its end, The Dissident notes that, to date, Saudi Arabia has not received any global sanctions or punishments for Khashoggi’s murder and that world leaders including President Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attended the G20 summit in November hosted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
In an interview with THR prior to the film’s release, Fogel discussed his surprisingly simple path to financing the film, the “responsibility” he felt to tell a story about human rights after Icarus and how he hopes viewers will react to the film’s call to action.
When and how did you first decide to take on the project that became The Dissident?
It really was about Oct. 16, Oct. 17 , as Saudi Arabia admitted that Khashoggi had in fact died inside the consulate. I had been following the story really since the first day that it broke: It just kind of captured my imagination. I was reading this story, following it in the news, and it had all these elements that I had been looking for, at least in my mind, of what I wanted my next project to be. Following Icarus and the international story that came from that, and then also the accolades that ended up coming, I felt like I had a responsibility — in some ways it felt like a burden — that I wanted to see to it that my next project would follow along that trajectory — a story about human rights, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, a totalitarian regime, a dictatorship that was seeking a false narrative and fake truths. And certainly in the Khashoggi story, all these boxes quickly were checked.
And as I started reading more about Jamal and then started reading his writings, his articles that had been [published in] The Washington Post and other stuff that he had published in different sources of Arabic media, and even some books that he had written over the past couple of years, it became clear to me that this guy was a moderate, he was not a radical as he was being painted in many places in the media. Especially on the right side of the media, he was being portrayed as an ISIS sympathizer, a terrorist sympathizer, all these kinds of things, which he wasn’t, and that also made me very interested in seeing if I could tell this story.
You said you felt a responsibility after Icarus to do something along these lines. But did you also have any hesitations about taking on another film that would challenge a very powerful foreign leader, again?
In every interview I ever did for Icarus, or every screening, the first question I was always asked was, “Are you in danger, do you feel like you’re in danger, has Russia threatened you,” etc.? And the answer was “no.” In the case of Icarus, I wasn’t the one who was in the lab, swapping bottles and then providing evidence against my country as a whistleblower as to what we had done. In the case of the Khashoggi murder, I wasn’t the one saying things that upset the kingdom. Rather, I am a storyteller and a filmmaker. And so if I approach a story coming from a place of fear, I think it would be very hard to go tell these stories, because you’d always be looking over your shoulder. So I try to really just focus more on the victims or the bigger story and try not to get too caught up into the “what ifs” of it.
And certainly in taking on this story, yes, there are a lot of parallels in a sense between Putin and Mohammed bin Salman in terms of a fake narrative, a strongman, authoritarian or dictatorship, but I just said, “Hey, this is a story that I really want to tell.” And as I grew closer to Hatice and Omar and what they were going through and that emotional journey, it certainly really drove me to want to make the film that much more and to try to bring a story like this to light.
What was the process of getting financing for this film like and how long did it take for you to find partners who were willing to take the subject matter on with you?
Around a month and a half, two months in [development], I met Thor Halvorssen of the Human Rights Foundation, [which] hosts the Oslo Freedom Forum every year in Oslo and hosts other versions of in New York, in Mexico, in Taiwan. What these events are is they bring together dissidents from all over the world to basically speak about what is going on in their countries and what those who want to voice dissent are dealing with. And in May of 2018, Jamal Khashoggi actually went to the Oslo Freedom Forum, and he was invited by Iyad El-Baghdadi, who you see in the film, who is a well-known dissident in the region. And so the Human Rights Foundation already had been following this story. They had actually invited Omar Abdulaziz that year to come and speak at the Freedom Forum because he was becoming very well known on Twitter and his YouTube videos.
So I got introduced to Thor. He had been an admirer of Icarus and I tell him, “Hey, I’m going to do this,” and he goes “Oh my God, we just had Jamal at the Oslo Freedom Forum and Iyad El-Baghdadi, and do you know about Omar Abdulaziz? I can connect you to him.” He said, “What do you need?” I said, “Well, I don’t know yet.” He says, “Well, if you decide you’re going to do this, we’d like to finance the film.” So Thor and I kept in touch and a few months later I said, “Hey, we’ve got Omar, we’ve got Hatice, we’ve got the Turks, we’ve got The Washington Post, I think we can do this.” And he said, “We’re in.” And I said, “Well, for how much?” He says, “All of it. We’ll finance the whole film.” And they did. And so I don’t know how hard it would have been to raise financing otherwise because I didn’t go to anyone else. I had met Thor, we hit it off, I mean he has been the best partner. They were aligned. And as I saw this, the best partner for this was not an investor who was looking for, “How do I get a return out of my money?” or an investor that was truly on the film side of it, but an investor that is a foundation that’s fighting for the human rights of dissidents around the world and that was really connected to the story for the right reasons. To me [that] was the dream financier. And in the Human Rights Foundation, I certainly found that.
When it comes to distribution, at Sundance last year you talked a lot about how you hoped that companies would step up to the plate and take the film on. Before the film was officially picked up in September, how many big Hollywood companies came knocking at your door?
Before Sundance, we had not shown the film to anyone and none of the major streamers or studios had reached out to my agency to see it. I don’t think we would have showed it because we wanted to premiere it at Sundance and the film itself was not ready — we weren’t trying to sell it ahead of Sundance. But we came to Sundance, Hillary Clinton was at my premiere, Alec Baldwin, Reed Hastings was there, heads of Apple and major execs from Amazon and Hulu and etc., etc., were there at the premiere and none of them stepped up to acquire the film.
And it was disappointing, but I think it speaks to what is the larger symptomatic response of, one, a U.S. administration that has shown — and with Biden that’s changing — that they will take action at anybody who goes against their policies and, two, it speaks to the global landscape of these companies that films such as this — that might really need to be seen and viewers would watch — are being silenced through not being distributed through these channels because they might infringe on subscriber growth or it might put the company at risk of a hack or it might infringe on financing. In the case of Saudi Arabia you have so much liquidity and so much money already invested into Hollywood, that clearly factored very large[ly] into the decision. And without going into behind-the-scenes details that I’m aware of, there was a unified front among the major global media companies, distributors, that they were not going to touch this film.
But to that extent, Tom Ortenberg [founder and CEO of Briarcliff Entertainment] has a track record of taking on tough films — Spotlight, which nobody thought was going to do what it did, he went on to push that to best picture, Crash, another very difficult title, Fahrenheit 9/11 and Michael Moore’s films, and the list goes on. And Tom has proven himself to be a very brave and bold advocate for the film. And we have some incredible international partners lined up: We have Altitude in the U.K. and Madman in Australia and DCM in Germany and wonderful international distributors like that. It’s just COVID is certainly not being helpful to the theatrical landscape and making the power of the streaming platforms even that much more important and relevant.
The end of the film has a call-to-action placard that asks audiences to go to The Dissident’s website. What are you hoping that audiences will do and advocate for after watching this movie?
We are building that out on the site, but it’s a call to action really to get involved with the Human Rights Foundation that not only is continuing to try to help support Hatice and her work with #JusticeforJamal but is also fighting for the rights of countless Saudi dissidents that remain in prison or on trial, such as Loujain al-Hathloul, the Saudi women’s activist who is on trial right now for voicing dissent against MBS and fighting for women’s rights in the kingdom. Or the countless others, whether that’s Essam Al-Zamil, who was a Saudi economist and Jamal’s friend who sits in a prison, or Raif Badawi, the names go on and on.
Because so many in not just Saudi Arabia but other parts of the Arab world, in the Emirates and Egypt, are dealing with the same sort of repression, the same sort of terrible human rights abuses — no freedom of press, no freedom of speech, living in fear that if they send a tweet that doesn’t align with their government they might find themselves arrested or executed or under surveillance, etc. And so I think that call to action is, on a Western level, getting involved with the Human Rights Foundation, writing letters to Congress, your senators, other world leaders, basically asking them to reevaluate their relationship with the kingdom until they change their records of human rights abuses and how they are doing things.
And what we are seeing over and over again is that, regardless of what they do, Penske Media took a $200 million investment from the Saudis; William Morris Endeavor apparently returned a $400 million investment from the Saudis; Netflix announced an eight-picture deal that they’d be financing through a Saudi production company; Amazon, months ago, announced that they had acquired Souq, which is basically the Saudi Arabian Amazon; and the list goes on and on. [MRC is a co-owner of The Hollywood Reporter through a joint venture with Penske Media titled PMRC.] Whether it was the Saudi investment into AMC Theatres or the Saudi investment into Live Nation or money that comes from SoftBank, one of the world’s largest hedge funds, which is Saudi money, or if it’s money coming from the Saudi Sovereign Wealth Fund, that is the world’s largest investment fund, that the money over and over and over again is basically able to make corporations, big businesses, governments, media or organizations look the other way of their human rights abuses or the war in Yemen or other things that are happening in that kingdom. So the call to action is individuals seeing the film and basically voicing their own form of dissent, whether it’s on social media, whether it’s writing a letter, whether it’s forming a protest, whether it’s going on Twitter, these are all calls to action.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.