A still from Saudi Runaway by Susanne Regina Meures, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
The Dissident by Bryan Fogel, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Hatice Cengiz and director Bryan Fogel attend the World Premiere of The Dissident by Bryan Fogel, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. © 2020 Sundance Institute | photo by Jemal Countess.
PARK CITY, Utah — The Sundance Film Festival is the epicenter for compelling, entertaining and educational documentaries. Although celebrity documentaries on late actress Natalie Wood, athlete Lance Armstrong, and Hillary Clinton are attracting moviegoers and headlines, two documentaries focusing on the struggle for freedom and against tyranny caught my attention.
The Dissident chronicles the horrifying and brutal murder of Washington Post journalist and Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi. Director Bryan Fogel, who nabbed an Oscar in 2017 for Icarus, the story of the Russian Olympic doping scandal, does an admirable job of presenting a vast amount of detailed and damning information documenting Khashoggi’s murder in a short period of time.
On October 2, 2018, Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain a certificate of a prior divorce so that he could remarry. He never came out. The Saudis denied, deflected and delayed until the evidence forced them to admit that Khashoggi was murdered in the consulate, although they still claim it was the action of rogue, low-level government operatives.
Fogel is not having it. He carefully and exhaustively leaves no stone unturned in tracing the murder directly to the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (aka MBS). He tells Khashoggi’s story through a fellow dissident based in Canada, and Khashoggi’s fiancé, both of whom live in fear for their lives.
Their stories are interlaced with Khashoggi’s background as a former member of the Royal Family and his disillusionment with the government. Khashoggi’s murder is detailed in graphic detail with a transcript of his final moments, the murder itself, the dismembering and disposal of his body and the haunting video of him walking in the consulate. The audacity of this murder is terrifying and angering.
In the question and answer following the film, Fogel spoke of the power of the Saudi government and noted that if wasn’t for the press this murder might have faded from the public’s consciousness. The film suggests that the Saudis retaliated against Jeff Bezos, owner of the Washington Post for the paper’s outrage and hacked his email, using the infamous Pegasus software developed by Israeli intelligence. Fogel is hopeful that a distributor will have the courage to acquire his film.
A 26-year-old Saudi woman, using two smartphones — mostly hidden under her burqa — plots her escape from a life of abuse and oppression in Saudi Runaway. Known only by her first name, Muna lives with her parents and young brother in Jeddah. She cannot go outside, get a driver’s license or renew her passport without the approval of her abusive father until her approaching wedding, after which her new husband will assume that authority.
Under the guidance of German filmmaker Susanne Regina Meures, with whom Muna has connected through a secret chat room for 350 similarly oppressed Saudi women, Muna uses her upcoming arranged wedding and honeymoon in Abu Dhabi as her escape vehicle. Muna surreptitiously films her wedding preparations, wedding ceremony (all women except for her father), honeymoon flight to Abu Dhabi and escape to freedom.
She steals her passport from her husband’s bag while he sleeps, and makes it through Abu Dhabi immigration to Frankfurt and a new life.
It is not an easy escape either physically or emotionally. Muna loves her family and is very protective of her younger brother who is subjected to beatings from their father. Yet despite the depressing oppressiveness of Muna’s life she loves the ritual of the family fast-breaking meals during Ramadan, the delight of an evening rain shower and the pilgrims’ visit to Mecca.
This frequently claustrophobic, sparse documentary is both chilling and suspenseful as Muna continues to film throughout her wedding preparations and ceremony, on the plane to Abu Dhabi, and in her honeymoon hotel, despite her husband’s asking in a menacing voice “Why do you keep filming?” Everything must work perfectly for Muna to make her high risk escape, and the film’s final moments are nail-bitingly suspenseful.
Although Saudi Runaway may not get extensive commercial distribution, it illustrates Sundance’s themes of women empowerment — more than half of this year’s filmmakers are women. Disappointingly, Muna could not attend the screening. She is in Germany, which has granted her asylum, and is undergoing an intensive assimilation program for asylum seekers
In a postscript, the film notes that 1,000 women escape Saudi Arabia each year. Saudi Runaway has not been acquired yet.
Jane Howze is managing director of The Alexander Group, a national executive search firm headquartered in Houston with offices in New York, San Francisco and San Diego. For more on Jane’s daily Sundance adventures check out her Twitter and Instagram feeds.