Justice deferred: the Jamal Khashoggi story. Global Journalism Seminar with Bryan Fogel, documentary maker and director of 'The Dissident'
3:30PM Oct 13, 2021
new york times
Hi Brian, You're muted Brian. Hi. Hi. Good morning, thank you for joining us. Hi, how are you.
I'm doing good, apologies for being a little bit late my router went out, and, and had to reset,
that's okay as long as you're not being hacked. Taken out blacked out, we're good. I'm Meera Selva, Director of the journalist Fellowship Program at the Reuters Institute, so if it's okay with you we'll jump straight in. We have now we have, we have people in the room already so I will just start with an introduction and then hand over to you for questions. Okay. And just to say to everybody as well if you do have questions for Bryan please put them in the q&a box and I'll put them to him through the course of our conversation. So, hello and welcome to the Reuters Institute study of journalism and the global journalism seminar on the second of October 2018 Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist from Saudi Arabia, walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, to get some paperwork to Mary's fiance. He never came out, his murder became a symbol of the attacks on journalists everywhere, of the targeted harassment they face online, and the surveillance and threats they face from state actors and non state actors, it's telling that three years later, the Nobel Committee awarded this year's Peace Prize to two journalists, the Philippines Maria ReSSA and rushes to meet through miracles in recognized recognition of both the importance of and the threat to press freedom. And today, on what would have been Jamal Khashoggi, the 63rd birthday. We're really honored to have documentary Director Brian Fogle with us. Brian gave extraordinary access to Turkish investigation records into his murder, and told the story of how Gemma's career, as it swerved from explaining and criticizing explaining the Saudi regime, criticizing it. Put him in more and more danger, and eventually led to his death. The documentary that incident is well worth watching, please do go on and watch it, it's widely available, but in the meantime, Brian, thank you so much for joining us.
My pleasure, thanks for having me to speak with you all.
Thank you. Your first documentary Icarus was very personal project to you it was driven by your own personal interest in competitive cycling and it's also by the way an extraordinarily good documentary. As far as I know, Jamal is not someone you ever met. Why did you feel compelled to tell this story. How did the project come about. Well,
the journey of Icarus which was three and a half years in the making, from the start of the project to to its completion, you know, was such a whirlwind. And in the end result of standing on the stage winning in an Academy Award for really what was uncovered uncovering and bringing forward to the world. What was the single biggest doping plot scandal in Olympic or sport history, but also protecting a whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov. And ultimately, as Gregory would say, saving his life. It placed me in a situation where I felt like I had, I guess, in many ways, an obligation to continue to try to make work. Now that I had access to resources and capital to make films that I wanted to do that I thought would follow in those footsteps of what was Icarus and, you know, sadly on October 2 2018 Apologies. You know, Jamal Khashoggi walked into that consulate to never come out again. And as the story broke that. Sorry, I have some allergy there, but it was in fact, Saudi Arabia, that had murdered him. I was just so taken by the audacity, that we were in a world that this could happen and especially after dealing with all the Russian issues regarding Icarus. And I thought to myself, hey, maybe this is my next film, and I began in middle of October, starting to reach out to the Washington Post, to teach Django was, and there was a story breaking about Omar Abdul Aziz. The young Saudi Justin in Canada, who had been hacked, because he was working with Jamal. And as I spent the next four months, gaining the access and trust of these people, and the Turkish Government. I had decided that this was indeed going to be the next film I made, and that was kind of the journey for me of, of how I got into the story, but also why I decided to make the film.
Can you talk a bit about this process of off gaining the trust of these people I was very struck in particular about your access and relationship with the Turkish investigators, because Turkey, you know, with the other face is the world's biggest jailer of journalists and it's not known for press freedom and yet on this you have kind of highlighted the fact that they took this seriously and we're willing to engage with you, how did you, how did you build this relationship with them.
Well, you know, first of all, I made a decision, going in that, you know, this was not the film or the project to dive into Turkey human rights records, whether or not they're, they've been jailing journalists and, you know everything that happened with Google in this coup and, you know, obviously, is, is, you know investigative journalists or journalists involved in, you know, uncovering stories on human rights abuses. You know there are, there are several in Turkey. But that was not the point of the film that I was going to make and if I went down that rabbit hole, I wouldn't be able to tell the story of Jamal Khashoggi murder in the way that that I was able to in the dissonant. Without Turkey's involvement, without the government helping me because how things work there is, is not like let's say the United States or the UK or whatever Switzerland or France and you can go and and do things with without the government support. In this case, particularly, without the government support, I couldn't have made the film and what I mean support is, is there access there allowing me to interview the key officials to speak to the chief prosecutor, you know, the head of of Turkey's Department of Justice there CIA forensic examiner. The President spokesperson, the list goes on and on, and building that trust was wasn't very long process. Because what what what Turkey needed to see and understand was that I wasn't there to, to get into other issues that I was there, particularly, and only for the Khashoggi case. And that, in so doing, I wasn't going to be going on. Divergent Paths, and it took him, took him an entire year to give me the full transcript, and that full transcript, which came into my possession, literally just a couple months before we finished the film. I mean that, that still hasn't been released to any news organization, or, or any other agency I think to this day I'm, I'm the only one who has the actual, the, the full transcript and, and, and that came through Turkey, you know, seeing actually what I was working on at that point with the film I'd shown him a cut. And at that point I had spent so much time there I'd been assembled for seven months back and forth, I had met, you know, pretty much everyone in the top positions of government, and they determined that I was a friend. And that's kind of, you know how that came about. And I was very pleased to have those relationships while making the film. Also, my own protection and security.
Did you ask for the transcript or was it something that they at one point said they could make available to you.
No, I wanted the full transcript. It was interesting. I actually really when I, when I set out I was determined to get the audio. And about a year into making the film, along with the transcript. They offered to give me portions of the audio, but to have me listen to the whole audio, and I made a decision at that time that it was gratuitous, that because of the graphics we were doing how the film's coming together, and especially the emotional connection, hopefully the audience is feeling to a teacher and to Omar and Jamal's friends, to then hear that audio. It felt unnecessary, because we all know that Jamal's is is murdered and dead and had been cut up. And so to then hear that it just felt that it was going into the territory of like a horror film, rather than a hopefully what you know people watching and think is, is also a film of beauty.
I mean the the scene just of the tandoor oven with the ashes at the bottom is horrifying. And despite, you know, odd stuff really horrifying, in itself. It's interesting the interplay between journalism and documentary making, which, which you've gone in, in both in both these movies, you know, Icarus to come and Edward armario will track stamping journalism in 2018, and then up in immersed in the world of journalism with with the Khashoggi story and especially with the connection yes with the Washington Post, do you see yourself now as more of a journalist or do you still see yourself as a documentary maker kind of on the outside looking in, but you're breaking stories you know your access to the transcript, like you said, you know, you, you have this document when other newspaper organizations don't. And in many ways you've kept the story of Khashoggi alive. And in the newspapers for three years.
You know, I think it's I think it's a little bit of both. I mean with with Icarus, I mean I truly, Aside from being a filmmaker and how that came together I really became the investigative journalist, because before we brought that story to the New York Times, we had spent at that point six months, compiling all of the evidence, literally getting, you know everything that we had translated. So when we sat with the New York Times, it was, it's kind of funny and and also upsetting for me. The New York Times at the end of there, you know, it was a front page, and then a two full pages on the inside of the front section, then the entire back page right with the story. So, this is a massive thing in the New York Times presents it like it was their investigation, like they had done, they had uncovered it right. And at the very end of the article, there's a little blurb about, like, literally materials provided by, you know, Brian Fogle who happened to be making a documentary, and I'm going like, come on guys, we did not only did we not only did we bring this to you, we like, We brought it to them, you know, packaged in a gift with a bow I mean literally handed the New York Times dossiers of information, you know, highlighted with tabs in it by section by day. It was, It was unfathomable that the paper would essentially take the credit for this, but, you know, but that aside, you know, it was, it was a so much investigative work to know, okay, this story isn't going to get knocked down, or that there aren't holes in this story, or that all of a sudden it could turn out that Rodchenkov was lying, or that, or that he was a criminal, and that took that was, that was a long path, to, to verify everything even though, even though I knew that he was telling the truth. And I had no reason to doubt him in. You know what, what became the second half of the film and presenting that to the world, but then bringing that to the New York Times. And then, you know, publishing their own, you know, investigation based on everything we had brought them in story was a, was, was quite it was quite a journey, but I, I guess to answer the question I mean I, I think of myself as a filmmaker first. And, you know, just like in the dissonant or Icarus we get into these big elaborate graphic sequences and big music and score and sound and and how it shot and how it camera moves, say always kind of approaching something from, from an idea of cinema, of how it can be crafted how you can take these stories that are real and then turn them hopefully into an emotional cinematic experience which I think really helps to. I don't know what the word is, but illuminate or bring interest in stories that you know you might, you might otherwise pass by, or read, you know, a couple bullet points on, like in the case of a story of Jamal Khashoggi, I think, pretty much anyone in the world who is following news knew that there was a Washington Post journalist who was killed on a consulate in this temple, and they know that Saudi Arabia, essentially ordered that murder. But beyond that, I don't think most people in the world knew all the intricacies of what that was. And so for me that that becomes my job of how to take a story like that, and hopefully turn it into cinema, but also, you know, bring and fill in all of those details to craft a compelling narrative.
You can see your you've done what journalists are struggling to do which is keep an audience involved through a long, complicated, international story about people they don't know and will, will never meet and it was very striking in the dissident that it builds so we start with the murder but then it builds up and up and up to Omar saying it's my fault he died because of something I did and then you go into the hacking and the surveillance, and that in itself is the major revelation and I think a news organization would try and put everything at the top and then and then kind of unpick it and I do wonder if you kind of stumbled on something that would work for news audiences in the same way would work for documentary audiences to take, take the reader with you for a story and don't give them everything at the beginning.
Well, I mean, hopefully, I mean I think you know the the crafting. You know that film and how we put together it's very, very deliberate, but in the research investigation, pulling together facts. Speaking with all the people of interest. I think it probably aligns more with the work of a, you know, an investigative journalist met except we're involving cameras and crews and lots and lots of equipment, but you know I don't. I have a film that's almost finished right now that I'm not quite ready to speak about, which again is a along the same lines vigorous and dissonant and a big global story with, you know, kind of big issues behind it, and, of, of that kind of ilk. But I'm also developing projects that are not in that space, but the, the projects that excite me and I have another one that we're getting ready to get started on which is a an environmental thriller, but involves, you know, human trafficking and slavery, and you know criminal businesses and that is on a global level as well so I, I definitely gravitate towards these kinds of stories where I feel that, aside from be making a film part of it that I can really hopefully uncover something and bring a story that people might only have on their periphery, really forward to a global audience. Thank you.
Let's go back to the dissident and you and the decision making and your security it throughout the process a lot of questions about this, you raised the issue of audio you decided not to air it because it would be gratuitous. What could you talk us through a bit more of other things, how you made those decisions and other things you know where you decided to in quite graphic detail and what you left out.
You know I in overall. I mean I didn't leave out a lot in the sense that I wanted to show the audience that we had the, you know, the, the full transcript. We, you know, illuminated and brought forward, lots of, of, you know, key facts that really had not been brought forward before like the fact that they had ordered 70 kilograms or 45 kilograms, which is like you know 70 pounds or more than that like 90 pounds of meat, you know, literally right after. Jamal had been murdered, wanted to bring forward a lot of facts and similar. I don't think we really left out much in, you know the details surrounding the crime. And, you know the intricacies of it. And I think as far as the world of characters that come forward in the film, which I viewed and still viewed to this day that you know that the two key people were his fiance, not, not because she had years and years of history with them but because she was the one that put him to, to the consulate and had, had they not been seeking marriage papers. They wouldn't have been able to kill him there. And of course the story of Omar which I felt was is the protagonist, and is the guy who's still, you know on this journey today. But you know you're always you're always making decisions of, of, Is that interview worthwhile. I mean there was no there's quite a few of interviews that I shot that we ended up not using in the film, or when I shot them I thought we'd use them a lot more as we get down the line we go. Actually this is really interesting, but it's taking a path away from the story, or putting more time into the story into the film that doesn't need to be there.
How concerned are you about Omar safety and also your own safety, did you find yourself being under surveillance hacked. What, you know, do you still feel that you might be in danger.
You know, I, I ended up working with a couple of the people in the film that I present as the, you know, Incredible cyber investigators and understanding of how hacks work. And they had been monitoring my devices for some time now. Hopefully, they're good at what they do. I think so. But, you know, particularly Citizen Lab and, and John Railton Scott has done extraordinary work, you know, hit the, the new or not new but the recent, you know, global story where they partnered with many news organizations and Amnesty International and bringing forward. The PEGASE investigate Pegasus investigation. John and Citizen Lab, you know, helped on that as well. So I don't you know I don't really get caught up into the personal security kind of fascinated because I, I think, I think, under the work that I'm doing. You're assuming a risk. So, if I was a correspondent in Afghanistan right. Well, you know what you're getting into. So if you're going to that journalist who's in Afghanistan going well you scared. Well, it would seem to me the answer is, is, I just, I, I worry about it but I hope that I'm okay and I'm ultimately here because I believe this story is bigger than myself, or because this, this story means something to me, and I, and I find myself in the same situation that I don't really spend a lot of time thinking about Putin, or MBs, or elements of that because I view myself as a storyteller. And, and, and, hopefully, like any other journalist in the world that I'll be okay and then that. And then I have rights of press freedom and those kinds of things so I try not to think about too much,
Jeff Beezus makes an appearance that you fill in, at the end. Did you have any conversations with him about the editorial content of the of the documentary at all.
Never, never, you know I was. I was disappointed that Amazon did not acquire the film, it's on its it's in its it's Amazon for the UK, yeah. But in the United States they know they can acquire it, or in other territories. But there was never any discussions with him as far as you know the, what was in the film or not in the film. But I worked with his team for months and months to bring him to assemble for the memorial. And, and that was quite a, quite an undertaking. Because wanted to see to it that the people that I viewed as being key to the story on multiple fronts, would be there. That one year Memorial.
So you, you, you, you kind of are the one who persuaded him to attend Memorial is that right, yes. Okay, that's striking. Why do you think I'm a son didn't buy it in the US.
Well, I think, I think it's the situation that that we found in the global distribution of the film, across the board, which is, you know, I think, I think all of these companies that you know not, not, not, you know, putting one before the other. The vast majority of them have investment from this part of the world Saudis, Mr ATI's. You know, there is a priority and a prerogative of global expansion and growth and, and these are big markets. I mean they're big consumer markets, because, because the people living in these countries have money and have the ability to be able to pay for these subscriptions and PI Services. And then I think there is the fear factor, you know, look, we, we show in the film, how Saudi Arabia goes after bases and starts a Twitter attack on and says to boycott Amazon, and, you know, multiple, multiple things. And I think these companies, you know, sadly, are in a place where they just, they don't want to take on content, Whether it's good for people are whether or or regardless of whether or not all their subscribers would watch it, or regardless of whether or not it might win awards. Or, you know get critically acclaimed, if they view that there is a possible financial downside risk, or security risk to the company, or is going to put the company in crosshairs of issues that they don't want to be in cross yourself. And I think that that that is a situation, you know, pretty much across the board. right now. When you're looking at. Investigative content like this that I think it's going to become and is becoming much, much more difficult to just reach a global audience with the push of a button because there's only a couple companies that have the power to do that. And if they're shying away from content like this. It leaves, you know, films like The dissonant. I think arguably if Icarus was coming out today, but it would leave, you know, a film or films like The dissonant on almost a you know an independent distribution path which is what happened with this film is we had to find an international sales agent and they went, country by country by country, you know, trying to get us a guarantee of distribution. The commitment of distribution. And, you know that the film would would be available, and it's largely available in Europe it's, I mean there's it's in a lot of places, but it's not readily available in most countries or places, and including the United States. If you know if it was on, you know, a big global streaming platform.
How many, I mean, you've touched on something really important here which is you know, funding and distribution a bit you know you need both these things for your work, and yet you pick these difficult crossborder high stakes investigations how much when you do look at the projects that you're going to do next, how much do you have that at the back of your mind like, God, you know, How am I going to get this out there, or do you make it and then hand it to your agent and say, Okay, go.
No, I look in the case of an incident. And, and in the case of Icarus and certainly, you know other other work that I'm that I'm doing, I mean, you know, I, you want to believe that you're going to be able to have a big global platform that is going to acquire the film and distribute the film. So that, so that your work can be seen. I was personally I was caught taken back I was surprised, especially after the success of Icarus and. And what that brought forward that we struggled so much to find distribution partners for the film. But, you know, I guess it's also just the nature of making content like this, and it's, it hasn't really dissuaded me from wanting and pursuing other stories of of interest that I think people should need to see or that I'm that I'm in stories I'm interested to tell. And I guess I just hope that the next one or the next one will have an easier time with distribution, but the fact that that I'm talking to you and everyone in this group right now means that means that a lot of people were able to see the dissonant and have seen the dissonant. So while it might have not been or isn't on Netflix, it is out there.
It's a two click Find but you can find it as he said, I know we can try last time but I'm going to keep you for one last question, which is just about the nature of documentary making and for investigative this kind of investigative reporting really, and we've talked about the potential of, you know, what you can do with it, but what do you see any pitfalls in this as a medium.
And what do you mean by pitfalls, um,
when you, when you, when you start an investigation I mean you kind of touched on, we're talking about the fact of distribution, you need you need funding and you need distribution upfront, in a way that you know, if you're writing on a blog, you don't need, you don't need that you can get a story out there much more quickly. Do you see any kind of pitfalls in using documentary making to break stories like this.
You know I, I, I don't know if I would call it a pitfall. My, I think that, you know what, what I've always done or I am doing is I don't want to be the person that is breaking the story in such a way that you're the one having to defend, whether or not this is true or false. There was a decision, you know, relatively early into the process of knowing the evidence that Grigory Rodchenkov had. And originally, we're thinking okay, we'll just, we'll hold on to all of this and we'll put it, you know forward in the documentary, and dig in and then what happened is, is the second half Vickers really becomes us following the story. After we bring the story forward to the New York Times, And then all these other global news agencies corroborate the story and it becomes, you know, the, the story and the scandal that it is and the reason for doing that, was we said okay if me and my, you know, filmmaking team. Not only that. Apples are held, and do forensic tests on them to determine if Gregory is telling the truth. We have no way to have the power of what the International Olympic Committee has or water the world anti doping agency. And if we keep this story to ourselves, while it might be true. We're gonna have so many holes in it, that it's going to appear that this is not a corroborated and fully vetted story, rather it's the word of Grigory Rodchenkov against an entire country. And so we decided, of course, to use those news organizations, and that corroborated and brought forward the story, but also helped me in telling, I think a much more truthful film. And I think the same goes in, in, you know, In the story of the dissonant, while there's a lot of facts and a lot of stuff that we bring forward that might have not been previously known. We're leaning in on you know all the facts that that news organizations have brought forward to see to it that, that everything that we're putting forward in the film is corroborated.
Thank you so much, Brian, I know we've kept you over your time. Do you have time for one more question, what do
I do I have to be. I've got five minutes,
Okay great, I'll let you go in five minutes, precisely, and just question about the spyware, you know, are you surprised about how media organizations have or haven't really pushed on the issue of holding spy makers like NSA to account because their own have been targeted as well as the politicians and democratically elected leaders and it seems to be the story that flared up and then just kind of was allowed to drift and right, and personal risk, and it meant to be an issue about personal responsibility, we all have to take personal responsibility for our, the security of our devices, but
the question is, you're wondering what exactly
I'm wondering if you're why you think we were in this situation why media organizations haven't stayed on the story, or more for longer,
I think, you know what's always fascinating to me, and, and it's interesting because in the dissonant fountain Alton the, the communications director the right hand man of President narrative one, you know, says, well, we decided essentially to drip this story, Because we wanted to keep it in the news media. They knew that if they just went out with it, you know, it was, it'd be a one day story or two, three days, it'd be gone. But I think what what Turkey did and how they brought that stored for a piece by piece by piece by piece was pretty genius and remarkable because it was like a, you know, a tele Nova was like a hill, it was like a 10 part limited series where, you know, it each day you were getting more and more information, and each, and it was. And it was so compelling that the world gravitated into the story of a murder of a journalist, and I think also how it was presented that he wasn't a Saudi journalist, he was a Washington Post journalist brought the world into this story, and certainly that had to do with the, with the way that it unfolded. And so I think what happens is when you get like a huge investigation like the Pegasus progress project, and it's all dumped on, you know the world in one day. In some, you know, one hit that our minds and the way that we work is, it's always a next next next next next you know you're, you're always refreshing the the news feed on your phone, and seeing, whatever that story is and so I think we're in a world. Overall we're where, you know, we're in a quick fix, media cycle we're always looking for the next story so whatever it is, it comes forward, next, next, you know, and I think it's very hard for stories to linger, and I think in case of the Pegasus story. Well, this is outrageous what's going on in terms of spyware, and how journalists were targeted. Not only that but presidents and world leaders and opposition leaders and activists and it cetera et cetera. But I think the vast majority of the planet goes well, that doesn't affect me. I'm not, I don't need to worry about that because I'm not doing something like that. And I think when you know, consumers are able to go well, that was terrible, but it didn't affect me. And it's easy for a story to kind of come and go and move on. And as the new cycle is always looking for something new. I found, you know, I remember, whatever that was, a year and a half, two years ago when the New York Times put for the beer story on the, on the Trump tax and tax investigation, and you go, Oh my god, they've, they've got them. This is incredible. They get, you know, they'd got the tax returns they you know they really put together a compelling case of of how the family and the organization, conducted business, how he had evaded, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes, etc. And yet that story was here today it was gone tomorrow. So I think it's just the, the nature of the media cycle that we're living in.
I mean, the thing I keep coming back to is, did you, did I hear you correctly that you, the Pentagon's communication team told you they deliberately drip the story to keep it in the news media. So they are kind of managing the story as its release.
They Yes I mean they, they wanted to, there was two parts of that one is I think there was a belief, which is not true that, you know, Turkey knew everything when they knew it, right, but they didn't. They were, they were investigating this. And and learning things in kind of real time as they were bringing forward, the story to the world. Right so, you know, okay great, they might have had a bug inside of that concert and been recording stuff for who knows how long years right. But nobody is ever going back and listening to that unless they were listening to something for specific interest so maybe their process and I'm just making this up was, every, every six weeks, there'd be a team that would review, you know, what what had been going on the consulate bring forward a report, etc. Right. But when this happened and all of a sudden the guys missing it's like, oh, wait, we had we had we have a recording device, they've got to go back and go do all of that. And not only that, when you look at how they pieced together all the surveillance footage and the guy, you know, the body double and I mean, on and on and on, it's remarkable that they did that, but when you think about what was involved to do that. Helpless 1000s of hours of time to search every camera and go back and try to put that whole thing together. So I don't I don't believe it was like an intentional, drip, drip, drip, drip, drip. I believe that they were putting forward, facts, and more evidence, as, as, as, as they had it. But, but I do also believe it because they did tell me that there was certain parts of the story that they were holding back because they wanted to see to it that the story would remain in the new cycle longer that it would become more important, and they believe that if they were more deliberate and planned, and how they brought this story forward to the, to the world that there'd be bigger interest and I think, I think that was a good approach.
Right, thank you so much. This is utterly incredible, and I could, I've got 1,000,001 questions but I will let you go. Thank you so much for your time and all the very best of luck with your next projects as well that we will keep an eye on very closely and also a real tribute to Jamal Khashoggi whose name will be remembered, largely due to your work as well so thank you.
I appreciate the time and having me speak to all of you, it's an honor as well, and I apologize for keeping you waiting for a few minutes.
Now we catch you at the other end. Thank you very much.