Fear Factor: Documentary Filmmakers Take Bold Risks in Pursuit of the Truth

Malina Saval
·8-min read

When Bryan Fogel set out to make “The Dissident,” his intrepid and arresting exposé on the assassination of Saudi Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018, he knew there were myriad security risks involved. There was the matter of Khashoggi’s killing—a brutal one, his body sawed into parts—at the hands of a Saudi murder squad, a death that US intelligence agencies have determined with a high degree of certainty was ordered by the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman. (To date, the US has leveraged zero sanctions against Saudi Arabia, nor meted out any punitive measures.) But there was danger lurking around every corner of this high-octane thriller, one that sent a shiver of terror down the spines of not only career journalists, but human rights activists and political dissidents globalwide. Fogel, a cinematic troubadour in the dogged pursuit of truth, was undeterred. Armed with exclusive access to Turkish criminal files, he embarked on a daring quest to unveil all facts in the case and hold accountable the perpetrators behind Khashoggi’s gruesome murder.

“I was, of course, aware of the danger, but what felt more important to me was the story, and the characters involved, and that inspired me. As a filmmaker, I like to take on challenging subject matter,” says Fogel, whose Oscar-winning documentary “Icarus” blew the whistle on Russia’s doping scandal, resulting in the nation’s four-year (later reduced to two-year) ban from the Olympics.

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“And I try not to focus on the elements that are out of my control.”

Those elements included working closely alongside such subjects as Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi dissident video blogger hiding in exile in Montreal and whose story functions as a parallel narrative to Khashoggi’s, and Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz. Cengiz, a Turkish scholar and activist, was waiting for Khashoggi outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul when he was murdered inside, having entered to retrieve marital paperwork for the couple. She’s been searching for answers—and fielding death threats—ever since. Fogel’s commitment to the cause has not wavered.

“I said to Hatice from the outset, ‘look, you know, I’m in this for the long haul,” says Fogel. “I am not here to shoot with you for a week, or a month, or two months. I am here to go on a journey with you. And however long the edit that it takes, I’m going to be here for you. And I’m going to be your partner. And we built that trust. The two of us are in constant communication. And, you know, she has become like a sister to me.”

Much has already been made of the fact that “The Dissident,” a critical hit hailed by such heavyweight politicos as Hillary Clinton, was not picked up for distribution by a streaming service. Even Amazon CEO Steve Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post and who was an alleged hacking victim of the Saudi government, passed on distributing the project. (It was, however, picked up by indie distributor Briarcliff Entertainment, which released the film in theaters and for rent on VOD platforms including Amazon Prime Video and iTunes.)

“It’s a lot easier, I think, for people to talk about being an activist, talk about caring, or to say that they want to help, than to follow through when it actually comes time to do it,” says Fogel. “Bezos was on stage [at Sundance] with Hatice, offering his comfort and support, but not meaningful action. I can only speculate that while Jamal was his employee and this was a matter that had a personal impact on him, it was also not in the best interest of what is his real business—and that’s Amazon.”

But what matters now, says Fogel, is that film is seen by as many viewers as humanly possible.

“We didn’t make this film seeking accolades, we didn’t make the film seeking awards, we didn’t make the film to gain money,” says Fogel. “We made the film because we wanted to bring the story forward to the world.”

It’s this indefatigable moral drive that galvanizes the filmmakers behind several other documentaries in Oscar contention, including “Welcome to Chechnya,” David France’s unsparing investigation into the Russian Republic’s deadly pogrom, steered by tyrannical Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, against the LGBTQ community.

France’s primary mission: “amplify the voices” of such Chechen activists as Olga Baranova, who runs an underground shelter system for local members of the LGBTQ community.

“[Olga] was very keen to have me try and find a way to tell this story, because they were having trouble reaching any kind of critical mass with international diplomats and lawmakers that might put international diplomatic pressure on Russia, that would bring an end to this horror,” says France, whose 2012 documentary “How to Survive a Plague” netted an Oscar nom.

“I went there right away,” he continues. “I knew that there would be problems, but I was determined to find a way to tell this story. The United States had already drawn a line of exclusion around Chechnya, saying that if anything happened to France and his film crew, they would be unable to respond. So, everything we did was secret. It was really kind of guerrilla clandestine filmmaking from the start.”

To that end, France and his crew relied on everything from a “network of human rights attorneys” to cameras “smuggled into safe houses” to undercover aliases. (“I was a fanatical American tourist and an extreme fan of the Egyptian football team, which had just traveled through Chechnya,” notes France of his cover alibi.) In post-production, France and his team of editors employed a face-replacement technology to disguise the identities of film subjects. It marks the first time the technology (similar to deep fake, an editing tool used by government agencies) has been implemented in a feature-length film.

“We were very concerned for our physical safety,” France says. “But mostly, what we were worried about was anything that we might do that would expose people who are already in extreme danger. And that that animated us more than anything else, protecting the people whose lives are already marked, who are being hunted.”

In “Assassins,” director-producer Ryan White and producer Jessica Hargrave embarked on another precarious mission, charting the criminal trials of two young women—one a Vietnamese national; the other from Indonesia—accused of assassinating Kim Jong-un’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam in broad daylight in Kuala Lumpur International Airport. The film lensed in Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.

White and Hargrave, who’ve partnered on such docus as “Ask Dr. Ruth” and “The Keepers,” worked assiduously to lay low during the entirety of the shoot, aware that at any moment their cover could be blown wide.

“I think there’s like a couple different layers of the fear,” says Hargrave. “But one of those layers of concern is certainly about security and about a [North Korean] regime that is, as evidenced through our film, known for human rights abuses.”

“When you’re filming in a Communist country that doesn’t have the best relationship with the U.S., like Vietnam, it’s always a little dicey, which is all the more reason to be operating under the radar and not having a huge crew or using lights or big microphones and trying to do things within safe spaces as much as possible,” adds White. “It becomes all about trying to get your shots and darting very fast out of hotels.”

The adrenaline, the rush, the insatiable ache to creative positive systemic change in the world through the unfurling of once-hidden facts even at the expense’s one’s safety—this is the fast-beating pulse of documentary filmmaking. It’s not about, as Fogel says, “how well it does in the two weeks it’s in a movie theater.”

Rather, it’s about making the world “a better, safer place.”

“In making this film, in the daily pursuit of story and dealing with real-world situations, it takes a huge emotional toll,” he continues. “There are many days where you are uncertain of what will be. There were many days when we were in Montreal, just waiting to shoot with Omar because he was literally under physical danger and receiving death threats. Right now, Omar’s brothers are sitting in a Saudi prison, friends are sitting in a Saudi prison, hundreds of activists are still in Saudi prisons for doing nothing more than writing or putting forward a message that there should be freedom of expression and thought in that country. So, I think, more than anything, the point I want to make is to encourage people to watch this film, find this film. Through this film, Jamal’s life lives on. I want Jamal’s life to live on.”

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