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'The Dissident' interview: Oscar-winner Bryan Fogel on the battle to get his Jamal Khashoggi doc released

Ben Falk
·5-min read
A still from The Dissident (Altitude)
A still from The Dissident (Altitude)

He won an Academy Award for his scathing look into the Russian doping scandal and now documentarian Bryan Fogel returns with a shocking exploration of the controversial murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The beginning of The Dissident isn’t the beginning of most documentaries. Instead, it opens like a Bourne film – and that pulsing, almost blockbuster action movie style doesn’t give up until the credits roll.

“I wanted to craft it in that way, that was very intentional,” says producer/director Bryan Fogel, who won an Oscar for his doc Icarus in 2018.

“What we like to do is think about how could we craft something that feels like a Paul Greengrass film, or a Christopher Nolan film, or a David Fincher film. I like the idea of expanding the genre to play with that kind of cinematic toolbox within the confines of documentary filmmaking.”

The result is a compelling, if sometimes hard to watch narrative switching between the life and death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and current dissidents like Khashoggi’s widow Hatice Cengiz and Omar Abdulaziz.

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Khashoggi was brutally murdered inside Istanbul’s Saudi consulate in October 2018 and Fogel lays out the scale of the stink around his death, criticising the Saudi royal family, as well as governments around the world who turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in the monarchy because of its oil resources.

A still from The Dissident (Altitude)
A still from The Dissident (Altitude)

So close to the bone is the film that Fogel told The Hollywood Reporter none of the major streaming platforms wanted to distribute it for fear of damaging relations with the country.

“Crimes like this are able to be gotten away with because there is a difficulty in the accountability when there is so much money on the line,” admits the director. “This is exactly what the film explores. The Omars of the world are the exception to the rule. Because most are willing to be bought.”

HOLLYWOOD, CA - MARCH 04:  Producer Dan Cogan (L) and director Bryan Fogel, winners of the Best Documentary Feature award for 'Icarus,' pose in the press room during the 90th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on March 4, 2018 in Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Producer Dan Cogan (L) and director Bryan Fogel, winners of the Best Documentary Feature award for 'Icarus', 2018 (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Activist and YouTuber Omar Abdulaziz, who now lives in self-exile in Montreal, is crucial to the success of the film. Not only is he a natural on-screen, but his unfolding story is constantly shocking.

“We’re literally in a subway filming with [Omar] and he gets a death threat. There were so many days we were filming with him and all of a sudden he gets a phone call that his brother’s been tortured,” says Fogel.

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“We stopped filming with him about a year ago, but his life remains unchanged. His brothers sit in jail, his friends are still imprisoned and the work that he does continues while he receives death threats, while he lives under the protection of the Canadian intelligence and government. It’s an incredible struggle.”

A still from The Dissident (Altitude)
Omar Abdulaziz in still from The Dissident (Altitude)

The filmmaker is unafraid to take on big targets – Icarus was about Russian state-sponsored doping in sport – but surely it can be frustrating to spell out national corruption in such stark terms and see some of the key architects, well, get away with it?

“I try to just stay focused on the film that I’m making, the story that I’m telling,” he says. “It’s very hard to do something with an outcome. Instead, I try to do something because I’m passionate about it and hopefully the outcome for me is that people who see the film tell me how much they loved it, or I read in the press that change comes…that Biden blocked $500million of weapons and I go, okay, maybe there’s impact. And maybe the film had a part in that.”

A still from The Dissident (Altitude)
A still from The Dissident (Altitude)

He's also not afraid to pin his flag to the mast and bridge the gap between activist and journalist. “Listen, there’s different ways to go about something,” he explains.

“You can be a fly on the wall, nothing wrong with that…or you can be involved. For me – and there’s no right or wrong – I’m choosing stories where the filmmaking can also be a personal connection. I like getting involved in stories such as that. As long as you’re sticking to the truth and you’re sticking to what’s authentic, being able to impact or create change is to me being an activist and I don’t see a conflict in the two. I see them working synergistically.”

With The Dissident once again pushing for awards recognition, Fogel’s documentary career continues its stratospheric rise. Although look at his IMDB profile and it could have been all so different. After all, he played ‘Imperial Stormtrooper Gray’ in 2009’s Race to Witch Mountain opposite Dwayne Johnson. So what did the Rock ever do to him to make him want to give up screen stardom and turn to non-fiction?

A still from The Dissident (Altitude)
A still from The Dissident (Altitude)

“That’s a friend of mine’s film and he put me in a stormtrooper outfit,” he laughs. “The crazy thing about that, it was like four days work and I received a residual check in the mail literally like a couple of days ago. It was ten years ago and I had, like, a line a dialogue.”

Maybe it’ll start happening for his documentaries?

“I wish,” he says. “It hasn’t happened yet.”

The Dissident will have its UK Premiere online at the Glasgow Film Festival on 6 March, and Irish Premiere online at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival on 13 March.

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