Khashoggi murder documentary, too explosive for streaming, debuts on-demand

NEW YORK – Even before “The Dissident” premiered at Sundance Film Festival, director Bryan Fogel felt his explosive Jamal Khashoggi documentary was going to be a tough sell.

The film, available on-demand this week, was one of the most anticipated at Sundance last January. Fogel’s previous film “Icarus”, about Russian doping at the Olympic Games, won an Oscar for best documentary.

“The Dissident” includes audio recordings of Khashoggi’s murder, the participation of Khashoggi’s fiancé Hatice Cengiz, and details of the Saudi hacking efforts, including the infiltration of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ cell phone. The audience at Sundance included Hillary Clinton, Alec Baldwin and Reed Hastings, the executive director of Netflix.

During the demonstration, Fogel pleaded with media companies not to be deterred. “In my dream of dreams, the dealers will hold their own against Saudi Arabia,” he said.

An upbeat Fogel, who drove to the film’s Sundance after-party in an SUV, said he was confident Netflix, Amazon, HBO, or others would take a step forward – anyone who would give the film a global platform for Khashoggi’s story Could that plays as fatal, real geopolitical thriller in “The Dissident”.

A protester dressed as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with blood on his hands protests outside the Saudi Embassy in Washington, DC in October 2018, calling for justice for Jamal Khashoggi.Jim Watson / AFP – Getty Images File

But the bumpy road for “The Dissident” was already signaled. None of the streamers – many of whom had bought Sundance’s top films – had asked for a preview of “The Dissident” prior to the festival – something that was to be expected for such a high-profile documentary from an Oscar-winning filmmaker .

“Many of the big streamers were actually there that day. Not their content headers. Your CEOs. I would have hoped that would have led to the following conclusion: “We will stand behind this film.” But that wasn’t the case, “said Fogel, speaking of Los Angeles-based Zoom last month.” We didn’t have an offer for $ 1, let alone $ 1 million – let alone the $ 12 million paid for “Boys State”. This is a wonderful movie, but it’s about 17 year old boys playing bogus politics in Texas. “

“The Dissident,” set in a ruthlessly real political field, will finally debut on-demand on Friday. It was finally acquired last spring under a deal announced in September by Briarcliff Entertainment, the independent distributor founded by Tom Ortenberg, the veteran film manager who sold Spotlight and Snowden as Managing Director of Open Road Films .

After a two-week run in around 200 cinemas (downsized from 800 due to the pandemic), “The Dissident” can be rented from iTunes, Amazon and Roku, among others.

But the cool reception big media outlets gave The Dissident – not because it wasn’t good (it has a 97 percent rating for fresh rotten tomatoes from critics and a 99 percent rating from the audience) or important because it’s open to the Saudis challenges The regime’s crackdown on freedom of expression – raises questions about the future of political films in ever larger and potentially risk averse streaming services.

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Netflix et al. Have played an important role in the exponentially growing audience for documentaries. In the global chase for subscriber growth, media companies have sometimes capitulated to demands that border on censorship.

In 2019, Netflix removed an episode of Hasan Minhaj’s “Patriot Act,” which condemned the cover-up of Khashoggi’s murder following a Saudi complaint. Last month, the New York Times reported that Apple CEO Tim Cook crushed an Apple TV + series in development through Gawker. Negative representations of China, both for old Hollywood studios and streamers, tend to be off the table.

“When it comes to big money – business interests, shareholder accountability, which makes us vanilla and doesn’t cause us stress – wins,” says Fogel. “As these companies get bigger, the decisions they make, including content, become less risky.”

For Fogel, the experience of “The Dissident” reflects the silence of Khashoggi. The film, funded by the Human Rights Foundation, describes a conspiracy to kill Khashoggi, a former Saudi insider who became a columnist for the Washington Post and moderately urged his home country to stand up for freedom of speech and human rights.

When he was collecting documents from the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 for his marriage to Hatice Cengiz, he was murdered and his body was sawn into pieces.

Intelligence reports concluded that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the murder. Mohammed denied that Saudi Arabia was behind the murder and eventually allowed it to be carried out by agents of the Saudi government. Mohammed has claimed it was not on his orders.

“The Dissident” contains interviews with Cengiz, Turkish authorities and United Nations investigators who reveal that Bezos, who owns the Washington Post, was hacked from a malicious file sent from Mohammed’s personal WhatsApp account.

The same hacking scheme was reportedly used on exiled activist Omar Abdulaziz, a Khashoggi employee. “The Dissident” ultimately asks why countries and companies continue to do business with a country that uses such methods and imprisons and kills dissidents.

“I hope this film will keep Jamal’s name and life and values ​​alive,” said Cengiz over the phone from Istanbul. “I hope people will ask more and more.”

President Donald Trump has refused to hold Mohammed responsible for the murder and is quoted in Bob Woodward’s latest book boasting that he “saved” the Crown Prince. President-elect Joe Biden has signaled a tougher stance on Saudi Arabia. Cengiz has asked the CIA to downgrade its investigation into the murder.

She also continued Khashoggi’s mission. “It wasn’t my choice, but it’s my life,” she says. That American film companies may have been afraid of “The Dissident” is “disappointing”.

“I couldn’t imagine they weren’t going to buy this movie because this movie was talking about a very important crime in history,” says Cengiz. “This film is about someone who fought for some very important values. That’s why they killed him. That’s why we fight. “

In particular, Netflix’s fear of “The Dissident” is “incredibly disappointing,” said Fogel. “Icarus” won Netflix’s first Oscar. A spokesman for Netflix declined to comment on the company that is distributing “The Dissident”. In November, the streamer signed a production contract with the Saudi studio Telfaz11 for eight films.

However, Fogel is also aware of the potential dangers associated with the spread of “The Dissident” and is considering the possibility of Saudi hacking or boycott of a distributor in the Middle East.

“Ultimately, those risk assessments took the place of whether or not your few hundred million subscribers want to see this film,” says Fogel. “It wasn’t just Netflix, it was universal. I think Hollywood learned from the Sony hack that the risk of embarrassment is too high.”

Ortenberg, on the other hand, felt comfortable with the headache that “The Dissident” could bring with it. “The film speaks for itself,” says Ortenberg over the phone from Los Angeles. He suggests “The Dissident” for reviewing awards.

“It’s a shame,” says Ortenberg about the concerns of other studios. “I have always seen the entertainment film studios as pioneers when it comes to important topics and have not shied away from controversy, but actually accepted challenges and accepted the challenge of making films about important topics and treating them with respect.”

Fogel sees a lack of international and corporate will to respond to human rights abuses that is only getting worse in Hollywood and elsewhere. Last week, the Saudi State Security Court sentenced 31-year-old Loujiain Al-Hathloul to more than five years in prison for tweets advocating women’s driving rights and opposed guardianship provisions for men.

Detained since May 2018, she has said she was tortured and sexually assaulted by masked men during interrogation.

“I believe that people in such positions of power with wealth and resources, if they are not ready to stand up for such human rights abuses, for what I consider to be the good of the planet, will become increasingly frightening the place where we can live”, says Fogel. “We’re all getting less secure.”

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