Khashoggi Doc Director Claims Distributors Are "Scared of This Film"

Sean Penn, Alec Baldwin UTA Screening - Embed - H 2020
Scott Feinberg

"I've come to the realization that the major global distributors are scared of this film," Bryan Fogel said solemnly during a Q&A following a Wednesday evening screening at the United Talent Agency of his new film The Dissident, a documentary feature about the life and death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi that will certainly not be popular with the House of Saud — "and," the UTA-repped filmmaker continued, "that winning an Academy Award for Netflix [best documentary feature for 2017's Icarus] was not enough to make them step up to the plate."

Fogel was seated between Alec Baldwin and Sean Penn, the evening's hosts and vocal champions of the filmmaker and his latest film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, garnering rave reviews (THR called it "a first-rate documentary about a scandalous political tragedy") but ultimately leaving Park City without a distribution deal.

Some have speculated that Hollywood distributors and the conglomerates of which they are just a small part have avoided The Dissident because its distribution would potentially jeopardize business dealings with the Saudi royal family, since the film unflinchingly argues that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, aka MbS, ordered the assassination of Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, 2018. The Saudis later acknowledged that Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of the royal family, had died on the property, but have insisted that bin Salman had nothing to do with his death. American intelligence services, however, have said they believe unequivocally that MbS ordered the assassination.

In the film, some associated with Hollywood come off better than others. Fogel shows that Amazon chief Jeff Bezos and MbS communicated with each other via WhatsApp until the disappearance of Khashoggi (who was a columnist for the Amazon-owned Washington Post at the time of his death), at which point Bezos immediately cut off their interactions. (The film also illustrates that the Saudis, using a WhatsApp message sent directly by MbS to Bezos, subsequently hacked Bezos' phone.) Bezos is also shown attending a tribute to Khashoggi in Istanbul one year after Khashoggi's death.

But, in a postscript, the film also lists the names of many high-profile figures who continued to do business in Saudi Arabia even after MbS's role in Khashoggi's murder became clear, including STX chief Bob Simonds.

In front of an audience of industry power players ranging from Dana Brunetti to Roger Deakins, Penn — who said that he had been pursuing a Khashoggi doc of his own until he learned that Fogel was making one — took his own dig at Netflix, asserting that the streamer was "too busy" paying off settlements for one of its talent partner's sexual misconduct [an apparent reference to former House of Cards star Kevin Spacey] to champion a daring project such as The Dissident, adding to laughter, "There's a lot of stress on such a gentleman as Ted Sarandos."

Baldwin reminded the audience, "One of the most important cylinders of [America's] engine of democracy is this industry, is the industry we work in. People count on you and they count on them [Fogel and Penn] to make films like this to tell them the truth about what's going on, because they're not going to hear it anywhere else in the world we live in today."