It is an enduring dilemma in art: the question of whether the real world, in all its complexity, is better understood through reportage or fiction, or through hybrids of the two. The question particularly exercises documentarists now, when the political reality of the globalised world is increasingly complex and elusive, not least due to the relentless online traffic of truths, lies and indeterminacies.

Perhaps for those very reasons, we increasingly demand some leavening element of entertainment to help smooth our path toward understanding. As ‘true crime’ series flourish on Netflix and elsewhere, even the most rigorous documentarists must ask themselves whether they should aspire to presenting truth in unembellished form, or whether it needs to be presented accessibly as something closer to ‘reality’ – using that word in the ‘reality show’ sense, in which actuality always comes to some degree fictionalised.

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These questions are brought to mind by two new documentaries that cover recent political assassinations, as well as the human stories behind them and the larger geopolitical factors at work. Both films pursue their topics with investigative seriousness, but use techniques of fiction cinema – particularly the tension and the enigma-building of the espionage thriller. These are not docu-fictions – rather, fictio-documentaries.

The Dissident (2021)

One is The Dissident, by Bryan Fogel, who made the Russian sports doping exposé Icarus (2017). The Dissident recounts the murder of Saudi Arabian journalist and political commentator Jamal Khashoggi, who entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018, never to emerge; although his body was never found, it became apparent that he was killed on the premises and then dismembered and disposed of. The film connects the killing with Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (aka ‘MBS’) and the Saudi regime’s anger at a journalist who was once very much its supporter before becoming increasingly critical, and a figurehead for proponents of change.

Ryan White’s Assassins is, if anything, more bizarre: it is about two young women, Doan Thi Huong and Siti Aisyah, who were tried in Malyasia for killing Kim Jong-nam, brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, at Kuala Lumpur airport in 2017. The women admitted that they touched Kim’s face with the lethal nerve agent VX, but claimed that they did so innocently, unaware of what was on their hands, and under the impression that they were taking part in a Japanese TV prank show.

The stories in these films are not ‘stranger than fiction’, just strange in the manner of a certain genre of fiction. Variety critic Owen Gleiberman recognised that in his review of The Dissident: “It’s become common, if not cliché, for a critic reviewing a documentary about a turbulent real-world event to write something like, ‘It exerts the power of a true-life thriller!’” And indeed, Gleiberman says, “When it comes to edge-of-your-seat intrigue, this is a movie with just about everything.”

​ Don Thi Huong and Siti Aisyah, who killed Kim Jong-Nam

It’s a point that the filmmakers acknowledge. White embarked on Assassins after being approached by journalist Doug Bock Clark, who had covered the Kim Jong-nam story in GQ. White remembers, “What grabbed the headlines was that there were two female assassins – there was a femme fatale ‘Bond woman’ spin to it that was very sexy to the media.”

Similarly, Fogel says, “We crafted The Dissident as a cinematic thriller. OK, I’m in a real-life Bourne movie, I’m in a Paul Greengrass film – how do I use those techniques to get the audience emotionally involved and cinematically consumed, with the sound and the music and the motion graphics and the editorial style?” The paradox is fascinating: a documentarist invoking the fiction films of Greengrass, who started out in documentary and has always been hailed for bringing the techniques and urgency of that form to fiction narratives.

A key question for both directors was practical: what visual material do you need to recount events that happened in the recent past? Both use extracts from international TV news coverage, and interviews with figures who have some authoritative status.

In The Dissident, those figures include Turkish investigating officials, the Washington Post’s Shane Harris and former CIA director John Brennan. Assassins shows the defendants’ legal teams at work, along with Hadi Azmi, a Malaysian journalist covering the case as it unfolds.

The Dissident also uses CGI evocation to paint the larger picture, perhaps the film’s least convincing aspect: images simulating the three-dimensional ‘space’ of the internet and social media (a recurrent trope in recent docs, notably Alex Gibney’s 2016 cyber-war film Zero Days), as well as clunkily literal animation depicting a war between digital flies and bees (representing Saudi internet trolls, and opponents’ efforts to combat them).

CCTV footage used in Assassins (2021)

Most importantly, both filmmakers, after lengthy negotiations, were able to access rare material that carries the weight of substantial evidence. Assassins is built around extensive CCTV surveillance footage from Kuala Lumpur airport, while The Dissident contains material provided by the Turkish authorities investigating Khashoggi’s killing: notably, footage of the police search of the Saudi consulate, and audio and transcripts of recordings from the consulate, in which the perpetrators discuss the killing.

As to the exact origins of these tapes, Fogel says, “Turkey, or an ally of Turkey, had a listening device, and in the aftermath of the murder, they started listening. Turkey has never divulged their intelligence – all we know is that they had it, and it allowed the world to know about this murder.

“Ultimately, the decision to provide me with all that police footage, and transcripts which they haven’t given to anyone else… and interviews with officials that haven’t spoken on camera in any capacity, was Turkey’s way of protecting the legacy of Jamal and of their investigation. I think they saw me as someone who could bring this to a wider audience than, say, a film on [Turkish news channel] TRT.”

The Dissident (2021)

One way that Fogel gives his story a narrative shape is to build it around two people close to Khashoggi. One is Omar Abdulaziz Alzahrani, a young Saudi dissident and video blogger filmed in Montreal, where he regularly received warnings of attempts on his life. The other is academic Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancée, who was about to set up home with him when he was murdered. Their scenes not only structure the film but also give it emotional intensity.

The Dissident (2021)

“I didn’t want to make an archival piece,” says Foley. “I was looking to make a piece that told the story behind his murder, and was involved with the people who cared about Jamal. In Omar you have the protagonist of the story, and then in Hatice’s emotional journey [we see] what it is to go through something like that. I spent months building trust with Hatice and Omar. I was going to be there for them – and I message with them every day.”

Beyond their thriller-like content, both films make sense of larger issues in world politics. Through Khashoggi’s murder, The Dissident is revealing about the place of Saudi Arabia in world politics – not least in relation to the US -– and about the nation’s highly organised attempts to suppress dissent. Both Hatice’s and Omar’s Twitter accounts, Fogel says, continue to be hacked, distorting the contents of their posts. The film also depicts a concerted smear campaign against Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in his capacity as proprietor of the Washington Post, Khashoggi’s US outlet.

Assassins similarly raises questions about North Korea and other Asian countries, and the measures that the nation is prepared to take to show the world that it doesn’t forgive opposition (Kim Jong-nam, once considered a potential rival to his brother, was alleged to have forged an alliance with the CIA). Such methods apparently extend to manipulating disposable innocents from other countries (in this case, two women from Vietnam and Indonesia) through fiendishly elaborate grooming methods.

The Dissident and Assassins are powerful, immensely involving and pitched in an undeniably serious register. But in imposing a thriller structure on actual events, isn’t there a risk of distorting our understanding of them, and of their real-world significance? Both films assiduously collate facts and visuals: they have the feel of comprehensive docu-dossiers, just not in a neutral news-gathering style (their dramatic soundtracks alone militate against that).

‘Assassins’ Don Thi Huong and Siti Aisyah being escorted from a courthouse by armed guards

Nevertheless, the filmmakers insist that the truth was their primary concern. White says that he and his team were scrupulous about their work’s ethical imperative: “What the audience is watching is something that wasn’t taken lightly – every second that made it into the film was debated.” Similarly, Fogel emphasises, “We are not presenting theories in this film – there were cameras, here’s the transcript, there’s an audio recording to back this up.”

But what does it mean to make films about actual conspiracies at a time when our stable understanding of the world is increasingly eroded by the spread of conspiracy theories – some of them beyond crazy, yet often given credence by those who should know better?

That, says Fogel, is why he wanted “to make sure I was never going down any rabbit holes. People were calling me saying, ‘I know MBS, you should know about Kushner and Trump…’, this deal, that deal – but I didn’t want to get into any gossip. My strategy in this world of conspiracy theories is making sure that everything in the film is just the facts.”

Elizabeth Wood, director of documentary cinema Bertha DocHouse in London, sounds a note of caution on the kind of subgenre that these films represent. She sees them as occupying a mid-point on a continuum between political exposé and ‘true crime’. “If you try to make something like a thriller, then you’re in danger of manipulating the story to make it thrilling – and that’s a problem for the audience. What are they watching?”

A film like White’s, she believes, has a very understandable appeal. “Why should I watch Assassins? Well, because it’s called Assassins. It’s in an entertainment category. It’s not political exposé, and it’s not true crime – not like Tiger King, which is clearly manipulated. It sits somewhere in the middle.”

Lawyer Hisyam Teh Poh Teik fields questions from the press

Nevertheless, Fogel and White both insist on their work’s real-world resonance. White acknowledges that, while he embarked on a human interest story, it was his editor who told him, “You can’t continue to ignore the macro – the massive web of foreign governments at play.” And Fogel’s film certainly spreads awareness of the attempts of people like Hatice Cengiz and Omar Abdulaziz to bring about social change, and of the challenges and dangers they face.

As the Washington Post recently reported, The Dissident has apparently been targeted by Saudi trolls, in an attempt to sabotage the film’s ratings on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb. Fogel also points to the fact that Netflix and Amazon US have declined to pick up his film – although Amazon will stream it in the UK – for, he suggests, very simple reasons.

“Globalisation has created a pivotal moment in the battle for human rights. More and more, you have a handful of global companies, thinking, ‘Is this content going to upset someone in this country? Is it going to hurt us in India? Would it upset Russia?’ This is the decision-making that’s going on, and with it comes a greater and greater loss for journalists and filmmakers.”

Truth-telling can be either given space or muted by the platforms and other outlets that we now routinely depend on. That’s something else to give us pause at a time when political paranoia can easily seem like a legitimate form of sanity. It’s a point made by Gleiberman in his review of The Dissident, when he notes, “I began to understand why the political conspiracy thriller has, for the most part, faded out as a form we can take seriously. Simply put: How can it compete?”

Further reading

The Dissident traces a detailed portrait of Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination

By Trevor Johnston

The Dissident traces a detailed portrait of Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination

Assassins peers into the diplomatic murk and weirdness of a high-profile murder

By Hannah McGill

Assassins peers into the diplomatic murk and weirdness of a high-profile murder

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