Bryan Fogel is an Academy Award-winning documentarian, producer and human rights activist. In 2018, Fogel received the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature for the Netflix film Icarus. In his follow-up to Icarus, Fogel decided to take on the 2018 assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khasshogi and the effort on the part of Saudi Arabia to control dissenting speech with his new film The Dissident. Fogel spoke with Awards Radar on what drew him to look into Khashoggi’s murder and the international ramifications, the hesitancy Netflix and other streamers had in distributing it, and why it’s resonating with audiences now.
I wanted to go back to the beginning with this film. How soon after learning the news of Jamal Koshoggi’s death in October 2018 did you begin to have the idea to have this be your next film?
It was kind of instantaneous. As the news was unfolding under those first couple weeks in October, the story just immediately riveted me. Journalist goes missing from a consulate. Washington Post writer. And it hit on all these things that were important to me. Freedom of press, freedom of speech, an authoritarian government that believed it could kill someone and take them and dismember them in a foreign country. And then, as you dug below the surface, the story that was coming forward that Jamal was Muslim Brotherhood, which he wasn’t. That he was a terrorist sympathizer, which he wasn’t. That he supported bin Laden, which he didn’t. Rather, the guy was a moderate, an intellectual. He was educated in the West, he was fluent in English. He spent his life going back and forth between Washington and London and Saudi Arabia. And what he was writing about was not as a dissident but as a moderate who had been educated in the West and believed that under Mohammed Salman, that this country was going in the wrong direction. And so all these tentacles just immediately perked up my ears and the question that really became for me was, could I do this story justice? Could I gain access to the components in this story? Mainly Khadija Genghis, Omar Abdulaziz. And the Turkish government to be able to craft something that was not going to be an archival film but rather was going to be an of-the-moment, as-i-saw-it, cinematic thriller.
The film premiered at Sundance just about a year after Koshoggi’s death. This must’ve been a race against the clock with planning, coordinating interviews, editing and everything. How were you able to complete this so relatively quickly? Did you feel the pressure in working on this pretty quickly?
I am grateful that we were able to premiere at Sundance before COVID brought things to a halt. Post-Sundance, we continued to do about six months of finishing work for the film. WHen you get into the festival, you have six weeks to finish a movie. And so it’s just a mad dash rather than really having, at least for me, the time to put all the polishes on it. Following Sundance, we were able to spend another six months on graphics and really bring out the whole transcripts sequence where at Sundance that was in a raw state. Went back and re-did the sound mix. Finished the score. So it was pretty major work that was done to the film. But in the making of it, from the outset I knew the story I wanted to tell and so while I was shooting and (cinematographer) Jake Swatko was shooting all over the world, we had a team in Los Angeles. My creative team. I had four editors working fullt-ime on the project. Each one of those editors had an assistant editor. Plus I had a pretty substantial archival and research team. And what encompassed a couple hundred graphic artists so we were just firing on all cylinders there driving to complete the film in time. Here I am, two years and four months later, and this is still my full-time endeavor. While the film might’ve been completely completed, six-eight months ago, this is still taking up my working bandwidth.
You captured some really incredible interview footage unique to the film from Kashoggi’s friends, family, and fiance. Was it difficult at all to track them down and then to convince them to become a part of this film?
From the outset, the only way that I would have embarked on making the film was if I was able to have the participation of Khadija and of Omar because I didn’t want to tell an archival news story and, of course, their journey and what was going on was so in the moment. I wanted to tell a story that was really looking into the aftermath of Khashoggi’s murder. What these victims were dealing with, on top of what the real world implications were, and what had come following the murder. I was able to make contact with Khadija about a month after Jamal was gone. He didn’t speak English at the time but she invited me to Istanbul and said that she wasn’t able to participate in anything but she respected my work and that I sounded nice. And offered to meet with me and take a meeting. So I flew to Istanbul and spent five weeks there, not shooting. Just building trust, building a bond and talking about the work that I saw ahead and explaining to her what I thought the process would be. But importantly, just telling her that I’m not here for a day, or a week, or a month. That was part of being in Istanbul for five weeks the first time. It was to let her know that I was there and I was patient and that I was serious and that we were gonna become partners in this journey. Same thing with Omar. Before he actually agreed to fully participate in the film, we had been shooting together for six months. Each time we shot, I would literally leave him all the camera carts. We did that because, not only was he uncertain of his paricatuon at the time, it was letting him, because it was his life and his story, be in control of when he decided when he was ready to actually participate. That was kind of a risky scenario to go into where you’re not only spending a ton of resources but time and energy not knowing fully that that person was going to end up granting you access. It really allowed for us to build trust and for him to know that I wasn’t there to go shoot an interview , take his story, take his evidence and run. But I was looking at this that we were in the long haul together. Certainly, I think that the two of them are brother and sister to me at this point. The trust was built similarly with the Turkish government in that regard. Obviously, there were concerns that the film was not going to be disparaging to Turkey. While Turkey has their own human rights issues and press freedom issues, this was not the film to take that on. ANd I reassured the government over the course of a year of us working together. Over and over, look, we have the same goals here. But if you allow me this evidence, if you allow me in, if you let me speak to these people and speak freely, you’re the only country in the world that has truly sought accountaily for this murder. And I intend to honor that in the making of this film and show the work that you’ve done. And a year later, they provided the transcript and so much of what you see in that film is truly exclusive to the film and was not released prior to the release of the film. Take all the BBC, CNN archives and you’re not gonna find what the film contains.
I know the film, although positively received at Sundance from audiences, was still facing a tough time getting distributed due to what was cited as “controversial” content. What was the setback like after Sundance and did you feel a sense of nervousness in the weeks or months that followed in the film not being shown to audiences?
It was disappointing to come through the success of Icarus with the critical acclaim The Dissident received, standing ovations, Hillary Clinton was there at the premiere and realized that I had taken on a subject matter that was so politically sensitive, financially sensitive. That the companies that I had truly hoped would distribute the film, not for economic gain, but because those are the platforms to which to really have a film globally seen. With Icarus, the film has had hundreds and hundreds of millions of views. Three years later, you can still go onto Netflix and, at least when I go onto my Netflix, it’s always on the top of the stream. So that’s something powerful to have a film that lives on that sort of platform that people can see, can discover, and can find. It’s a disappointment in that regard. On the other hand, the film is out there. It is being seen. I’ve received many kind words about it. I only look forward. And I also hope that the Biden Administration, look the CIA Intellgince report apparently is oging to come out today that has declaffiied the finsdings of Khasohi’s murder. That’s already incredible progress under the administration. He also has put a $500 million block on weapons sales condemning the war in Yemen. So we’re seeing some real immediate changes coming from the Biden Administration. So I’m optimistic with the film. Not having a global streamer aside, I’m optimistic that those that need to see the film will find it and certainly there’s a lot of public policy stuff that the Human RIghts Foundation that backed the film has been doing to bring visibly to it and have the people that really need to see it see it.
Once the film was picked up by Briarcliff Entertainment, I believe it was the third most rented film on iTunes which is huge for any movie, but I would say especially for a documentary. What do you think it was about The Dissident that had so many across the globe want to tune in and watch once it was released?
I think probably there was a large part to do with Icarus. It was so well-watched and seen and part of the marketing behind The Dissident. We made it clear that it was from the director of Icarus. There was a lot of attention on the Khashoggi murder. I think anyone who followed the news of the past couple years was aware of this story. I think the trailer shows that the film plays as a thriller. There was a lot of press that came from it. We had some great reviews. A lot of wonderful reviews. And so I think that that combined into bringing some anticipation to the film and helped drive the VOD release.
Is there a certain political awareness that you want audiences to take away from the film?
I view myself as a storyteller, a filmmaker first. And an activist and the kind of human rights work I do as part of that. But I don’t get tied to an outcome. I don’t look at something where if I don’t garner an award, the film’s not successful. Or if this doesn’t happen, then the film’s not successful. I think the biggest outcome that I could hope for is a reforming of Saudi Arabia’s human rights policy in jailing members of the press, and journalists, and dissidents, and anyone who has an opinion that doesn’t align with Mohammed Salman’s. I think businesses and countries reexamining their relationship with a kingdom that is willing to commit such outrageous and atrocious acts against those that wish to have their voices heard.