A cinematic retelling of the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi requires no embellishments. The raw facts are sinister and dramatic in themselves, involving a gruesome killing inside a consulate in a foreign country, an ambitious prince intolerant of dissenters and a kingdom with far-reaching financial clout. Yet Bryan Fogel’s new documentary, “The Dissident,” goes the extra mile, deploying an aggressive score, frenzied editing and C.G.I. elements to drive home the pathos of Khashoggi’s story and what it reveals about Saudi Arabia’s insidious machinery of surveillance and repression.
The film begins in the present day with spy thriller-like intrigue. In a hotel in Montreal, a young man speaks ominously into his phone, saying things like “it’s all about revenge” and “if it doesn’t work the clean way, I’ll use the dirty ways.” This is Omar Abdulaziz, a 27-year-old Saudi vlogger living in exile in Canada, and he’s talking, we soon learn, about Twitter warfare.
As outspoken critics of the Saudi regime, Abdulaziz and Khashoggi had become online friends in 2017, after Khashoggi fled to the United States amid a crackdown on journalists and activists. Days before Khashoggi’s murder, the two of them had started secretly collaborating on a social media campaign to fight Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s army of propaganda-spewing Twitter trolls. Khashoggi had been a royal insider for many years before turning critical of his country’s increasingly undemocratic ways; with their plan, Abdulaziz says, Khashoggi had finally become a dissident.
Their collaboration — and its possible role in making Khashoggi a target — is one of the few revelations in “The Dissident,” whose array of talking heads and illustrative footage mostly adds context to previously reported facts. Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, shares the pair’s correspondences, which paint a touching portrait of Khashoggi as a man who had cherished finding companionship after a difficult separation from his family. In the most disturbing parts of the film, Turkish police and United Nations officials recount their investigations of the murder as the screen zooms into transcripts of conversations between the men who dismembered Khashoggi inside a Saudi consulate. “Will the body and the hips fit into a bag this way?” reads a highlighted line.
All of this material is so chilling and effective on its own that the movie’s emphatic music and computer-generated graphics — which include a Twitter battle pictured as a showdown between 3-D flies and bees — can feel like overkill. But these flourishes serve the film’s ultimate objective: to impress acutely upon us the injustice of a world where money and geopolitics supersede human rights.
Rated PG-13 for graphic descriptions of real-life violence. In Arabic, Turkish and English, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 59 minutes. In theaters. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.