"Environment of Fear" With 'The Dissident': 'THR Presents' Q&A With Director Bryan Fogel

The documentary — which faced challenges finding a distributor — explores the circumstances surrounding the murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi and exposes Saudi Arabia’s many human rights abuses.

The Hollywood Reporter’s Tatiana Siegel sat down with director Bryan Fogel to discuss his new documentary The Dissident in a THR Presents Q&A powered by Vision Media.

Fogel, whose 2017 film Icarus won the Oscar for best documentary feature, has delivered another shocking exposé into the murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi.

“I had not known who Jamal Khashoggi was prior to his disappearance,” Fogel admits. But when he first heard of the reports of Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, he says it triggered “a light-bulb moment.” While reports out of the Middle East initially labeled Khashoggi as an extremist, Fogel read his work for The Washington Post and discovered him to be “basically advocating as a journalist lobbyist [in] Saudi Arabia” while directly challenging the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has a record of “cracking down on anybody who has an opinion different from him.”

The film follows Fogel as he travels across the world to find connections between Khashoggi’s death and bin Salman, working alongside a Saudi dissident in Montreal and spending months in Istanbul. Proving a vital source was Khashoggi fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, giving this political — and controversial — documentary a core human element. But while Khashoggi’s murder is a focal point, the film speaks to the larger issue of Saudi Arabia’s many human rights abuses.

Despite premiering at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival to ecstatic audiences and rave reviews, The Dissident wasn’t able to find a distributor — a surprise considering Icarus earned Netflix its first Oscar in 2018. “Not a single one of these major streamers stepped forward,” Fogel says. The film, financed in part by the nonprofit Human Rights Foundation, was never intended to be a box office hit. “It was never about money,” Fogel adds. “And yet, there were documentaries sold at that festival for $12 million.”

Six months after Sundance, Briarcliff Entertainment picked up the film for a VOD release, and it reached No. 3 on the iTunes Store. While Fogel is pleased about its success on the platform, he wishes it could reach a wider audience on a subscription-based streamer. “These horrendous human rights abuses are happening in Saudi Arabia, and yet these global businesses are unwilling to take any stand despite what I believe would be their subscribers’ global appetite [for] this content,” he laments. “But when it comes to … anything that is political, or anything that is human rights-oriented, what we are seeing is that this global marketplace is leading to an environment of fear.”

THR Presents film screenings are powered by Vision Media; additional Q&As and other supplementary content can be viewed in THR’s new public hub at THRPresents.HollywoodReporter.com.