“The Dissident”: Film Review

Bryan Fogel’s account of a Washington Post columnist’s disappearance brings the man behind the story vividly back to life.

“Icarus” – Bryan Fogel’s hugely enjoyable Oscar-winning documentary about doping in sports – started simply enough as a personal journey, before developing into a thrilling, nail-biting, high-stakes adventure with a stranger who then became a friend – Russian scientist Gregory Rodchenkov, a former head of Russia’s anti-doping labs.

Over the course of the film – and of the remarkable arc of Fogel’s and Rodchenko’s relationship – Rodchenkov’s situation altered considerably. Initially a trusted insider, he became a dissident in danger of losing his life.  He is now in a witness protection scheme in the United States.

Fogel’s latest documentary, “The Dissident”, is in some ways a sequel to this, this time documenting a posthumous friendship with a man who seems to have been just as amiable and genial as Rodchenkov, and whose story follows a similar path almost to the end. Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist and long-time Saudi insider, had started in his middle years to deviate from the policies of his country’s regime. This deviation was accentuated when the regime embarked on a process of partial modernisation that would not accommodate dissenting voices. Khashoggi became a political exile and increasingly outspoken.

“The Dissident” reconstructs the events that followed, through the testimony of his fiancée, friends and allies, and of various officials. One of the strengths of this film is that it creates, in a way that feels genuine, a sense of who Khashoggi was as a person. Too often, in film, victims of a terrible crime become defined by their demise and lose as a result what they had been over the full course of their life.

Fogel, as a filmmaker and storyteller, succeeds in eliciting sympathy for his subject in the same way that he had for Rodchenkov, on the strength of who the man was as a person, separately from his past actions or intent.

If Khashoggi’s life and work were likely more complex in real life than the film chooses to present, this complexity is less relevant that what was done to him and why, and the context in which this was done. Fogel chooses to develop the film in a different direction, and moves on to take up the story and cause of another exiled dissident, previously associated with Khashoggi and perhaps unwittingly instrumental in the latter’s fate.

At this point, what it is that this film is fundamentally about, becomes harder to parse. This is perhaps where “The Dissident” becomes an ambiguous document – in part because it forgoes contextual analysis while appealing to emotion through Khashoggi’s last romance, and in part because of the pleasures of watching a film that borrows strongly from elements from the thriller genre. It seems to enter the fray itself as an activist rather than an observer-reporter, in a fact-based film format that belongs more to the ‘scripted’ than ‘unscripted’ genre.

“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. For more information visit http://www.thedissident.film

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