“Saudi Arabia is a 100-year-old monarchy, and monarchies don’t like change.”Jamal Khashoggi
Documentarian Ben Fogel’s highly polished follow-up to Icarus covers the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Fogel succeeds in condensing this important story into a compelling two-hour narrative, but there is little new information to glean for those who followed the news, with most of the shocking facts well-publicised at the time. Like many modern documentaries, Twitter provides the contemporaneous context, particularly so in the cause of Saudi Arabia where it is used by 80% of the population, making it also a prime target for state surveillance. I complained of Fogel’s need to insert himself into Icarus; here he stays out of the way, with the human perspective provided by Khashoggi’s friend and collaborator, Omar Abdulaziz, and partner, Hatice Cenzig. Through their recollections, The Dissident is a portrait of a lonely man, on a road from an insider voice of the establishment, to a true journalist and ultimately a dissident. Having spent 30 years working with the Saudi government, he faced mistrust from activists. He seemed more a reformer than a dissident, galvanised by the Arab Spring and then disappointed by the Saudi-sponsored counter-revolution. It was ultimately his own country’s response to reformist voices which pushed him further away. Perhaps the documentary’s greatest warning is not about Saudi Arabia at all, but the ease with which it fell into authoritarian digital state surveillance, which should be alarming to those complacent about eroding privacy in the West.