The killing of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 was a historic event, a brutal wake-up call about the fragility of free speech under a supposedly reformist Saudi Arabian leader.
Now it's poised to turn into something else: a cinematic event.
The Oscar-winning director Bryan Fogel, who made the Russian-doping investigation Icarus, has shown a documentary about Khashoggi, called The Dissident, at the Sundance Film Festival.
Layered with news, drama and moral excoriation, the film not only unpacks one of the most shocking events in modern Middle East-US relations but is likely to shine an uncomfortable spotlight on both Saudi Arabia and the profit-minded American companies that do business with it.
The movie already has influenced developments in the past week by pushing the United Nations to release its own conclusions about the alleged Saudi hacking of a phone belonging to Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos. One of those investigators, Agnes Callamard, who is interviewed in the film, believes this is only the beginning of its impact.
"It's far more powerful than any report I can write in terms of delivering the story to a great number of people," Callamard told the Post in an interview. "I don't think the court of public opinion is the same as a judicial proceeding, but it is a form of accountability."
Fogel said: "This is a story that has a distant repressive regime. It has a slain journalist. It has a fiancee waiting for love. It has American complicity. It ticks all the boxes."
Post columnist Khashoggi was killed on October 2, 2018, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in an act the CIA believes was ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The Dissident tells that story, along with the complicated quest for the truth since. It features a slew of details from Turkish investigators alleging how the killing was committed and covered up; on-camera interviews with figures such as Khashoggi's Turkish fiancee, Hatice Cengiz; and a parallel story of Khashoggi's fellow dissident taking refuge in Canada, whom the film shows to be subjected to similar targeting.
A number of Post figures, including columnist David Ignatius, senior reporter Shane Harris and publisher Fred Ryan, appear in the movie. Fogel said The Post had no financial involvement in the film.
In a blistering final section, The Dissident also takes to task the American companies that continue to work with Saudi Arabia.
The movie could inadvertently prove its own point. Independently financed by the Human Rights Foundation, the documentary will screen at Sundance for prospective buyers. Given the importance of oil-rich Saudi Arabia, it remains an open question which global streamers or studios will acquire it.
Fogel made the movie to explore the consummate insider-turned-exile — Khashoggi at times was uncomfortable with the "dissident" label — who shed light on a government and in turn became one of its biggest targets. By taking a slick and almost thriller-like approach, Fogel hoped to attract a wide audience without sacrificing nuance.
Mohammed has said he takes "full responsibility" for the killing because it was perpetrated by Saudi government employees but has denied ordering it himself. Saudi Arabian foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud called the UN report about the Bezos hacking "absurd".
Using transcripts and other evidence, The Dissident lays out the plan to kill Khashoggi, who died just days before his 60th birthday. The plan was allegedly designed by Saud al-Qahtani, then one of Mohammed's chief advisers, and Salah Muhammed al-Tubaigy, the forensic doctor who allegedly worked out how to eliminate evidence. With grim specificity, al-Tubaigy is shown via transcript describing how to cut up Khashoggi's body so it can be easily removed.
The body was never found, but Fogel cites Turkish investigators who say it was taken to an oven that had been bought and installed at the consul general's house, and burned. The consulate at that time also had purchased 70 pounds of meat — ideal to burn and mask the smell of an incinerated corpse.
Al-Tubaigy is believed to be one of five people the Saudis say were sentenced to death after a closed-door trial conducted by the Saudi government. Callamard objected to the proceedings, after which she tweeted the "masterminds ... walk free".
The film features extensive on-camera interviews with Omar Abdulaziz, a 28-year-old democracy activist who fled Saudi Arabia before the Khashoggi killing and now lives in Montreal.
Abdulaziz recounts how agents of the crown prince threw his friends and relatives in jail while using both threats and enticements to try to get him to return to Saudi Arabia or one of its consulates — for what purpose he can only speculate.
Little known before the attack, Abdulaziz turns out to be a central player in the narrative. He and Khashoggi had collaborated to launch "the bees" — a democracy-minded Twitter offensive to counter Mohammed's jingoistic troll farm known as "the flies". Abdulaziz believes that this effort, along with US$5000 Khashoggi wired him to get it off the ground, cemented the decision to kill Khashoggi.
Since Khashoggi's death, Abdulaziz has struggled with guilt. "Whenever I remember him, I feel I have to do more," the activist says on-screen. "I don't want to fail him." Harsh Saudi tactics, Fogel suggests, didn't end with the killing. The movie lays out in detail the hacking that continued, via the phone-trawling programme Pegasus, of key figures in the West.
Chief among them is Bezos, whose Amazon had plans to build large data centres in Saudi Arabia — plans that stalled after the killing.
According to one of the UN investigators in the film, David Kaye, a seemingly innocuous video file that Mohammed sent to Bezos via WhatsApp in April 2018 — five months before Khashoggi's death — likely contained Pegasus. Reams of data were then found to have been extracted from Bezos' phone.
"It's shocking they were able to hack someone like Jeff Bezos from a cybersecurity standpoint," Fogel said. "But in light of what we know in the overall story and what they did to Jamal [Khashoggi] it makes perfect sense."
The fallout from Khashoggi's killing was intense. Many companies pulled out of an economic forum scheduled for late that fall, while Hollywood firm Endeavor, the holding company that controls a large talent agency as well as the mixed martial arts promoter UFC and other entities, returned a US$400 million investment.
But it was also brief. Many companies that did not attend Mohammed's forum in 2018 returned in force in 2019.
"I saw how little has really changed after Khashoggi," Fogel said. "And it's angered me."