Most everyone remembers the Saudi government murdering dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi embassy in Turkey in 2018. Many also remember Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos getting his phone hacked and his dick pics leaked in an alleged extortion attempt some months later. The piece of that puzzle that seems to have slipped by undernoticed is that the final analysis showed that Bezos’s phone had been hacked by the Saudis. And not just “some Saudis,” it came through a WhatsApp message from Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin-Salman (MBS) himself to Bezos’s personal cell phone.
This was presumably carried out as payback for the Washington Post’s (owned by Bezos) critical coverage of the Saudis in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder. This after Khashoggi was himself murdered as retaliation for his critical MBS coverage in Bezos’ post.
That the leader of a close US ally had a dissident dismembered and then stole dick pics from the world’s richest man to help cover it up seems like it should’ve been a bigger story. Now, the full story of how it happened — the murder, the hack, the coverup — is being told in Bryan Fogel’s new documentary, The Dissident.
The documentary, releasing January 8th as a VOD rental, details, along with a few other works like, Assassins, about North Korea’s assassination of Kim Jong-nam in a Malaysian airport, a scary new world in which not just information, but government-sponsored assassins flow freely across international borders, murdering anyone who badmouths them with relative impunity.
Directing a movie about a leader who hacks tech titans and murders journalists across borders would seem to be a risky undertaking. Luckily that’s sort of Bryan Fogel’s bag, having won an Oscar in 2018 for Icarus, a movie in which he dug into Russia’s program to help its athletes dope without getting caught. Vladimir Putin, obviously, has his own history of murdering critics (allegedly), and Fogel’s main subject in Icarus is still in hiding. So Fogel knows a thing or two about investigating people who might kill him.
Yet Fogel soon found that merely making an insanely dangerous movie was only half the battle. He also had to get it released. And when, after a star-studded Sundance premiere attended by Hillary Clinton and widespread acclaim for the film, Fogel still couldn’t find a distributor, he felt the reach of MBS’s power in a different way.
In a media ecosystem where five big streamers control most of the content, all are afraid of offending big markets run by wealthy despots who could hurt their bottom line, and there’s a lot of Saudi money sloshing around in the film industry. In that way, MBS or the Chinese government don’t even need to assert direct control; to some degree, fearful execs will censor themselves.
One of the big takeaways seems to be this: the free flow of global capital is impeding the free flow of information, not to mention human rights. I spoke to Fogel recently about what it took to make the film, and the battle to get someone to distribute it.
So in Icarus you covered a decades-long cheating program in Russia, and then in this you’re going after MBS in Saudi Arabia. And these are people who sort of have a history of killing journalists. What gives you the courage to take on these kinds of projects?
These stories feel bigger than me and I feel compelled, I guess, as an activist to try to tell stories that can have impact. The funny thing is, Icarus, obviously there was a lot of stakes and there are still a lot of stakes and Grigory [Rodchenkov] is still living in hiding, but that journey and the accolades that the film received, and then the true changing of policy literally because of that film, the IOC banned Russia from the 2018 Olympic Games, five months after the film came out. And literally just a week ago, Congress and Trump signed into law a bill called RADA, the Rodchenkov Anti-doping Act, which criminalizes doping in sport and gives the United States abilities to investigate international doping scandals. And you go, wow, that’s the impact that a film can make. So I felt a burden that I had to continue on this path. I couldn’t go and go make a Disney film, because I had a friend who basically lives in hiding for the rest of his life from speaking the truth. What kind of person would I be if I went and took on a project for a payday rather than continuing to try to do work to bring truths and human rights abuses to light? I was looking for what that story was going to be. And sadly, during those first two weeks of October, 2018, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi unfolds on a global stage. This checked all the boxes of what I was looking to do and do next as a filmmaker and so I embarked on what has now been that two years journey.
How much have you had to teach yourself about cybersecurity just to protect your subjects in these movies?
You know, with Icarus we all started using burner phones and I used some burner phones with this one, too. We were working with different security consultants and then the FBI got involved and then dealing with U.S. intelligence… It basically becomes way, way outside of making a film. It’s like, okay, at one hand, you’re making a film, on the other hand, you’re literally in a real-world international political crisis. It’s a similar thing with this and there are a couple of security experts that appear in the film. Needless to say, they’ve been helpful in giving advice.
When you connect with those experts and dissident groups within those countries… how do you make sure they’re not infiltrated by U.S. security services?
You don’t. I mean, this world is only as good as the next hack, the next thing. So the way that this works is here’s the best analogy, right? You have cancer and if they think you have cancer in your abdominal area, they’re going to test for abdominal cancer, right? But you could have lung cancer that is never going to be detected because the only thing they tested for is abdominal cancer. Well, the same thing goes in hacking or security. You can only test based on what you know, and what you don’t know is what you don’t know. So the ability to detect Pegasus [the program used to hack Bezos’s phone] comes from these cybersecurity experts like John Railton-Scott and Citizen Lab, knowing all these servers that people communicate with. These main couple hundred servers that every single time we do a search it’s pinging that satellite, it’s going through that server, an Apple server, an Amazon server, a Google server.
Well, if they develop another way in, that detection system goes by the wayside. And so it’s a constant cat and mouse game. As revealed in the film, it turns out that a hacking group selling cybersecurity figured out that you could literally hack a phone by infiltrating a hole in WhatsApp. And all you had to do was call the person’s phone, using WhatsApp and the virus was on that person’s phone and they had full access to their device. So WhatsApp then closes the wormhole. I read yesterday that there was a back channel in Apple that they had just discovered where a guy basically set up a Wi-Fi in another room that your phone would connect to and just through that Wi-Fi they could get into the phone and hack it.
What we see, whether it was Snowden’s leak of the NSA or what you see in The Dissident and the hacking of Omar and Jamal or Jeff Bezos in this, this is the new frontier of war. Which is basically extortion for information, embarrassment over information, or being able to gain access to somebody’s device and then basically committing acts of violence or otherwise. And Pegasus hasn’t just been used by the Saudis. Ghana used it to go basically kill the opposition party. Mexico used it to basically go target journalists that were investigating the Mexican government for helping the drug traffickers. This is being used for all sorts of nefarious purposes and I’m sure there’s a lot of good purposes in it too.
This is the reality of this day and age, and, I think, also one of the main reasons why the film has struggled to have a big global streamer take it on.
Going back to the Bezos hack, it seems like such a huge story that not that many people know about. Did that go undercovered or did it just get sort of drowned out by other stories?
What had happened is Bezos basically is all of a sudden he’s trying to be extorted by the National Enquirer, right? Saying, “We have naked selfies of you, and we know you’re having an affair and we have the text messages,” and he’s going, “How is this possible?”
And as you see in the film at the same time, there’s this whole smear campaign against him and the Washington Post going on on Saudi Twitter, where he’s getting these weird messages from MBS. And the investigation reveals that data is streaming out of his phone and that it’s connecting to a server known to be a Saudi server. And Gavin de Becker wrote a piece on The Daily Beast basically saying, I have uncovered this hack and Bezos basically got in front of it and wrote a Medium post saying, “Hey, I am being extorted. And I believe that this is what’s happening.”
So those two pieces came forward from both Gavin de Becker and the Daily Beast and Jeff Bezos in the Medium but none of them specifically said the Saudis had hacked him. But then the ensuing investigation by cybersecurity experts determined that it was a hack of his phone that had happened through that WhatsApp message, that it was likely Pegasus. And I’ve worked with the UN investigators and with individuals on the Bezos team for months before that information became public so that I could have that be a part of the film. And the story came out of his hack right before the Sundance Film Festival, knowing that we didn’t want this information coming out for the first time in the film, that we wanted it to be validated through journalistic publications such as The New York Times and Washington Post and others that could investigate the evidence.
But then it seems like in the public mind that the connection between that original Bezos scandal and the Saudi government, it doesn’t seem like that is widely known still, even.
I think that so much gets lost, and I think it’s hard also to have sympathy for the richest man in the world. They go, okay, you were cheating on your wife, it got exposed, it cost you $40 billion and we don’t feel sorry for you. But the bigger takeaway from that is how scary that is. And also what we’re seeing, which to me is the bigger takeaway of this, is the fear that has been instilled in major corporations around the world and governments. I mean, we’re just learning in the last few days that Russia has hacked all over these government servers, right? No one is safe.
That fear of retribution, boycott, loss of business interests, loss of subscribers, loss of being able to sell your iPhones in that country, or being able to do business is being taken into account in a much more meaningful way than it should be. Because as all of these companies are now global businesses, and these streaming companies are streaming globally, it becomes harder and harder and harder to have a free flow of information.
There is an article in The New York Times just yesterday talking about the five big global streamers and how projects are being stopped because the interest of these companies is purely to grow their subscribers, sell their technology. And if that means that 800 people need to be beheaded in Saudi Arabia for tweeting against the government, well, so be it, because they’ve got hundreds of billions of dollars to invest. That’s a scary place I think that we’re finding ourselves in.
Can you tell me about the difficulties in finding distribution for this movie because of the content?
I mean, we premiered it at Sundance. We went and did six months of work post-Sundance to refine the film and bring that transcript to light, but that’s another story. Anyway, we were met with standing ovations. Hillary Clinton was at our premiere, Hatice (Khashoggi’s widow, a major character in the film) was with me, Agnès Callamard was with me and the amazing critical response to the film was so humbling. And then here we were, the hot film of Sundance, it’s on the top of the top lists, and we had not a single offer, not for $1, not for a million dollars, not for $10 million to acquire and distribute the film — not one.
And you go, how can that be? How can you be an Oscar-winning filmmaker that brings a film about a huge global story, Jamal Khashoggi was Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, that is a murder mystery, that’s a cinematic thriller that has been acclaimed by publications, by critics, and yet it’s not worth a penny? So this is the world we’re living in, that you can spend two years risking your life to go make a film like this, to fight for justice and accountability and none of these companies will have your back.
Luckily months after Sundance, Tom Ortenberg and Briarcliff Entertainment stepped forward to acquire the film. And it was out December 25th in limited theaters and January 8th on VOD for rental, but it will not be available on the big streamers. I’m very grateful to Tom and Briarcliff for having the balls to do this, and disappointed that we are in this environment where business and money and shareholder accountability and subscriber growth is clearly taking precedent over bringing films like this to the mainstream.
How do they hold them back?
Look, these media conglomerates are very different companies today than they were a few years ago — whether that’s WarnerMedia which is now AT&T and Warner Brothers and HBO and all those other stations, or then you have Disney, which is Disney and Hulu and the theme parks and the entire Disney empire, and you have Netflix and you have Amazon, right? So you’re basically down to four companies that control pretty much the flow of all media and content. All four or five of these companies and Apple are huge global companies valued among the highest in the world. And with that comes a singular purpose, growth, shareholder price, market growth, subscriber growth, money, investment — how do we get more of that?
That simply doesn’t align with human rights. Because that means you can’t do business with China, it means that you wouldn’t distribute The Dissident, it means you wouldn’t take on Salman. This is the world with the monopolization of these media companies. The more they consolidate — and I can’t see them really consolidating more — with that there is a cost. That cost, I think is freedom of speech, freedom of press and holding authoritarian regimes accountable of the crimes such as murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Because in their minds, business interests will come before their human rights abuses.