Sundance 2020 – The Dissident

I left this screening for The Dissident with a distinct sense of disappointment, but not for the inherent reasons a film about the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian consule in Istanbul and the attempted coverup and lack of justice would leave me with. Mainly, I was disappointed in just how surprisingly bad the film from Bryan Fogel (Icarus) was. It is a dreadfully unfocused, remarkably pedestrian take on a story with this much impact.

I suppose we can start with the issues of this film with the absurd amount Fogel spends following Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi activist living in Montreal who was a close associate of Khashoggi’s. You never understand why we’re getting this story from someone so seemingly removed from the events of Khashoggi’s murder. Fogel keeps just filming him walking in slow-motion through the streets of Montreal like he’s a detective hot on the trail. You could have a drinking game keeping track of how many times Fogel cuts to Abdulaziz walking like a “bad-ass” in slow mo and you would be absolutely smashed by the end of the film. 

It’s never a good thing for a documentary to be this unnecessarily reliant on CG animation. It ultimately cheapens the real stakes and tragedies. Consider how he’ll glitch footage to let you know that shit’s about to get real like it’s a Michael Bay film. There’s one particularly awful stretch detailing how Abdulaziz recruits an army of “bees” to tweet back at the army of the government’s “flies”, and they animate cyber flies infecting tweets to boost their likes and retweets. To cap it off, an army of cyber bees buzzes over to combat them, and a cyber bee slays a cyber fly. It’s ultimately silly and just takes away from the immediacy of the situation. This is the film encapsulated, all flash to cover up the fact that it doesn’t have much to say, or much to really ask. What does it mean to have a nation controlled by social media? How is it that the world has been largely okay to ignore this murder? What does journalism mean anymore if we just keep hopping over to the next crisis before we’ve done our due diligence? Why must a tragedy remain in the headlines for it to matter? What does this mean for us? 

It’s a bad sign for your film and the festival when you close your film with a blatant typo in your title cards because you forgot how to spell “legislation”, and that somehow nobody noticed it in the process of getting this film here. Also, there are large parts of the score that are straight up ripoffs of tracks from Max Richter’s Memoryhouse. He would be well within his rights to sue. 

Fogel curiously ignores any of the terrible things happening in Turkey do to their own dictatorship, which I suppose is the price to get the access to the authorities and their investigation footage there that he has, but ultimately does nothing of note with. There’s also a particularly bad passage that tries to frame Jeff Bezos as some titan of free speech simply because he didn’t attend a conference in Saudi Arabia. Get the fuck out of here with that.

I don’t know what it means that we consistently get a documentary/narrative film/series very soon after anything significant in the world happens. I don’t know what it means that we can’t seem to acknowledge something until it’s told back to us in a visual format. I mean we’ve already had a film and a series about Roger Ailes. What are we doing? Can we not sit with what is happening for a moment? Or are we too impatient a people for understanding?

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