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A Movie and Its Maker

Hatice Cengiz with her fiancé, Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered by the Saudi government (Courtesy of Briarcliff Entertainment)

Bryan Fogel is a fascinating filmmaker and person. I have done a Q&A with him, here. His latest film is called “The Dissident,” about Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered by Saudi agents in October 2018.

Fogel was born and raised in Denver. He went to the university in Boulder (such a beautiful place). He was a funny guy — is a funny guy — doing stand-up and the like. He co-wrote a play called “Jewtopia,” about the dating life, and other sensitive matters. He starred in it. This play ran in L.A. for a year and a half and in New York for more than three years — which is a helluva long time. In 2012, he turned the play into a movie, starring Jennifer Love Hewitt and others.

The movie flopped, as he tells me in our Q&A. Bryan was out of money. He seemed to be stuck. He thought of moving back home to Denver, to live with his parents for a while.

What a comeback. He details it in our podcast. In 2017, he won an Oscar — for his film Icarus, absolutely fascinating. Consequential, too. It is about the Russian government, sports, and doping. At the center of it is an amazing, and amazingly brave, whistleblower.

Now Fogel has made his movie about Khashoggi, and the murder of him. Before embarking on the project, he had heard things about Khashoggi. We all have. Muslim Brotherhood. ISIS. Friend of Osama bin Laden!

The Saudi lobby, and the Saudi propaganda machine, are well oiled.

Like Icarus, The Dissident was a great hit at the Sundance Festival. Obviously, companies were falling all over themselves to distribute the new film, right? A film by an Oscar winner, about a sensational murder that has intrigued the whole world.

No takers. You can read about this in a report from the New York Times. Netflix, which had distributed Icarus, was shy. So was everyone else. How come? In the entertainment world, there is big, big money to be made from the Saudi government. You don’t want to cross it.

Finally, The Dissident was taken up by Briarcliff Entertainment, an independent company.

Near the end of our podcast, I say to Bryan Fogel something like this: You’re a funny guy — a Jewtopia guy — who has now made films on very grave topics. You have crossed the Russian regime, and now you have crossed the Saudi regime. You’re a brave dude, among other things.

He answers me approximately like this:

I think we all have responsibilities as human beings to try to do our best to serve mankind. I don’t mean to be hifalutin about it, but it’s true.

I sat with Hatice Cengiz, Jamal’s fiancée, for weeks on end before we filmed, building trust. You can’t help feeling great compassion for somebody who has gone through such a loss. How does she pick up her life the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that?

Ultimately, she goes onto the world stage, after being unknown — just an academic. And now she’s speaking on behalf of someone she loves and thought she was going to marry and who was brutally murdered.

Then you go and sit in Montreal with Omar Abdulaziz (a Saudi dissident who served as an assistant to Khashoggi). He’s under the 24-hour protection of the Canadian government. As I’m filming with him, text messages are coming into his phone that are death threats, with Canadian area codes.

You also hear the audio of Saudis trying to rendition him back to Saudi Arabia.

And, as I’m filming with Omar, he gets word that his brothers have been tortured, and one of them — his teeth have been knocked out. Nineteen years old, in a Saudi prison.

I don’t care what side you lean on, politically, but not to have compassion and want to fight for people who are trying to get the freedoms the rest of us take for granted — that’s what drives me.

(Once more, the link to our Q&A is here. You’ll want to get to know Bryan Fogel a bit.)

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