The assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi assassins sparked Bryan Fogel’s decision to direct and produce a documentary about Saudi Arabian efforts to stifle dissent. But even in the U.S. and abroad, Fogel says his own movie has seen the adverse effects of Saudi influence over its own narrative.
“The film is being independently distributed on VOD because not a single streamer would touch this film,” Fogel said. “Not a single major global distributor would touch this film. The reasons are obvious — their business interests their money, the subscriber growth, the investment that Saudi brings into these companies and the shares that they purchase and their publicly traded companies on and on and on, is too big to want to stand up for human rights.”
In a Variety streaming room conversation moderated by film awards editor Clayton Davis, the director and producer discussed his inspirations for telling stories related to those punished for their dissent to Saudi law, and how the large amount of money to be made by streaming sites in Saudi Arabia might have led them to avoid picking up the film for fear of offending the country’s government. He also explained the process he took to build trust with his subjects, who include Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, Saudi activist Omar Abdulaziz and members of the Turkish government who offered evidence about the journalist’s murder.
“My first trip to Istanbul was early November 2018,” Fogel said. “I actually didn’t bring a camera. I went there with Jake Swan, my cinematographer, producing partner, and we spent the next five weeks there meeting with the Hatice … and at the same time taking meetings with the Turkish government, building that trust so that they understood that I wasn’t there to exploit the story.”
And while the narrative focuses mostly on Khashoggi and Abdulaziz, a man close to the journalist who sought asylum in Canada, Fogel said the stories in the documentary are just a handful of thousands. Abdulaziz’s brothers, for example, are imprisoned for their connections to him, and women including Loujain al-Hathlou face prison sentences for advocating for women’s rights.
“This was a story because not only were there human lives on the line, there are human lives on the line,” he said. “Thousands of people, 800 beheadings last year, most of these young dissidents. People that sent out a tweet not agreeing with Mohammed bin Salman.”
Watch the full conversation above.