His death horrified the world.
On Oct. 2, 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian journalist and outspoken critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was killed and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Turkey. After a cover-up, Saudi Arabia issued verdicts in a secret trial that absolved Prince Mohammed of any wrongdoing. Yet the Central Intelligence Agency and other investigators have concluded he probably ordered the killing.
Two years on, two new documentaries remind us that Turkish prosecutors — and those closest to Khashoggi — are still awaiting justice, hoping he won’t fade from memory. Covering the high-profile case of a subject who opposed the Saudi government outright brought challenges for the filmmakers, both during and after shooting.
“Kingdom of Silence,” a Showtime documentary by Rick Rowley (“16 Shots”), debuted Friday, the second anniversary of Khashoggi’s death. (In a rare move, Showtime is allowing nonsubscribers to watch it free on the platform and on YouTube.)
The film follows Khashoggi’s career, from his early days as a wide-eyed journalist in Afghanistan to his time as a spokesman for a top Saudi politician to his final years as a self-exiled Washington Post columnist.
His story is told in the context of American-Saudi relations, through commentary from intelligence officials, activists and journalists, among them the New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright (who is an executive producer) and Ali Soufan, a former F.B.I. agent and friend of Khashoggi’s.
“The film’s primary virtue,” Ben Kenigsberg wrote in his review for The New York Times, “is in presenting many friends and colleagues of Khashoggi who illuminate his ideals, ventures and personal relationships.” Khashoggi himself is also present, through archival footage and writing excerpts.
At first, Rowley set out to craft a murder mystery. But as he dug deeper, he no longer wanted to investigate who was behind the murder — “It’s not a question,” he said — but why it took place.
“Who was this man that the kingdom would risk so much to silence?” he recalled thinking.
In the immediate aftermath of the killing, “we were all looking at the death,” said Vinnie Malhotra, the executive vice president of nonfiction programming at Showtime. “We weren’t examining the life.”
That life was filled with contradictions. For instance, one of Khashoggi’s friends didn’t know he had a wife in Washington, D.C. — whom Rowley interviews — while another friend wasn’t aware of his fiancée in Istanbul. And it wasn’t until Khashoggi’s later years, the film argues, that he personified the dissident he is known as today.
Rather, the film is a portrait of a longtime insider who had valuable, potentially damning information. It uncovers an unreported detail: Right before his death, Khashoggi had agreed to meet with an investigator working with families of 9/11 victims that are suing the Saudi government. The investigator wanted to discuss the government’s ties to Al Qaeda, but Khashoggi was killed before that meeting could take place.
Shooting the movie came with challenges. Saudi Arabia denied Rowley’s team journalism visas, so he sneaked in on a tourist visa and shot under the radar. The crew also received threats throughout the course of filming, but Rowley hesitated to say more.
“You can’t be naïve when you begin a project like this,” Rowley said. “You’re constantly communicating with people who are the targets of surveillance themselves, or who are working for intelligence agencies, or who might actually be assets of the Saudi intelligence themselves.”
Surveillance is a key story line in “The Dissident,” by Bryan Fogel, the director of the Oscar-winning 2017 documentary “Icarus.” Slated for a theatrical release on Dec. 18, the documentary plays like a thriller: Its tense score often evokes impending doom, and archival footage is supplemented with computer-generated imagery.
The movie chronicles the final years of Khashoggi’s life from the perspective of Omar Abdulaziz, a young Saudi activist in Montreal and friend of Khashoggi’s who, like the journalist, fled Saudi Arabia, criticized its rulers and has had to pay for it.
Their stories progressively intertwine, particularly as the film looks at the kingdom’s cyberoperations. Both Khashoggi and Abdulaziz were targeted for their online rhetoric, and Abdulaziz has said that the royal court hacked his smartphone using the same software that has been used to spy on journalists and activists.
In the days leading up to Khashoggi’s death, he and Abdulaziz were collaborating on a social media campaign to counter Saudi propaganda on Twitter.
Last January, the United Nations accused Prince Mohammed of hacking the cellphone of Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive and the owner of The Washington Post, potentially as an attempt to influence the outlet’s critical coverage of the kingdom. Fogel said he was aware of the story before it went public and explores it in his movie to emphasize a chilling point.
“If they can use this technology to go after the richest man in the world and shame him, who can they not go after?” he asked. “Who is not safe?”
Fogel gained access to evidence from Turkish investigators, prosecutors and government officials, and spent considerable time with Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancée. He intersperses footage from the crime scene with anecdotes from Cengiz, who shared voice mail from Khashoggi and led Fogel into what would have been the couple’s home.
The goal, Fogel said, was to create an “emotional journey.”
The movie debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January and received glowing reviews from several critics (and Hillary Clinton). But none of the major streaming platforms went after it.
Early reports speculated that Netflix, Apple and Amazon all had reasons not to buy it. Netflix complied with a request from the kingdom to block a 2019 episode of “Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj” from streaming in the country, raising the question of whether it would have taken similar action if it had released “The Dissident.” And the hacking of Bezos’ iPhone had implications for both Apple and Amazon, which he leads.
The distributor Briarcliff Entertainment will release “The Dissident” in select cities before expanding nationwide early next year. “It’s an important story that needs to be told,” said Tom Ortenberg, Briarcliff’s chief executive. “It deserves, and frankly commands, to be seen on the big screen.”
Khashoggi’s case is still making headlines. Saudi Arabia issued final verdicts in September; Turkish prosecutors filed a second indictment against six suspects last week; and a human-rights watchdog organization that was the brainchild of Khashoggi was just unveiled in Washington.
“Kingdom of Silence” and “The Dissident” amplify his story further, shedding light on lesser-known details and serving as a call to action.
“There has been no justice,” Fogel said. “So I believe that the story carries forward past Oct. 2.”