It was too hot to manage Brian Fogel’s “The Descent”
The documentary on the assassination of journalist and political activist Jamal Khashoggi, who was assassinated in 2013 at the behest of the Saudi Royal Family, was one of last year’s most popular Sundance films. It had flashy reviews, dropping out of the headlines and a new look at Fogel’s big-name director, Oscar-winning “Icarus,” a fascinating view of Russian doping that banned the country from the Olympics.
And yet Netflix, which has previously released “Icarus” and other streaming services like Apple and Amazon, has cleared “The Desist”. The film was closed until the last fall without any interested buyers. When Brycliffe Entertainment, the obscure distributor led by former Open Road CEO Tom Ortenberg, announced that it would release the movie on-demand.
Fogel thinks the issues were highly explosive for large corporations that have financial ties to Saudi Arabia or that they are looking for access to customers that benefit the country’s large population. Using interviews with friends and colleagues, as well as Khashoggi’s fiance Hatice Sengiz, Fogel paints a grim portrait of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s seemingly involved and open speech crackdown on the country, ruthlessly employing writers and thinkers. Thanks to previously unreleased audio recordings, “The Descendant” draws a direct line between the Saudi government’s anger at Khashoggi’s assassination at the Saudi embassy in Turkey and its clear language criticism of the country’s human rights abuses and mismanagement.
“Decisive” is currently available on demand, but Fogel did not dream of provoking a larger conversation about Khashoggi’s assassination, but rather his silent release. He spoke Different About the difficulty of making “Decisive” and then seeing it and why he thinks his new film scared the main series.
Why do you want to make “Decisive”?
After the success of “Icarus” I felt a great burden and social responsibility to do the proper follow-up. I was looking for a story about human rights, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, journalism. I also wanted a story that could have a real world impact that could create real world change through social action or political action.
While the investigation into Jamal’s murder was being published, my ears were pricked up and I immediately started reading more about this person. I didn’t listen to him, but I knew how loyal and respected he was as a voice in the Middle East. He was also portrayed in many media circles as a terrorist sympathizer or a member of the Muslim Brotherhood or a friend of bin Laden. That was not true. She was a moderate who fought for freedom of speech on behalf of her country and believed that women should have rights. He believes that the policies of Mohammed bin Salman have led the country astray.
Was it hard for her friends and fianc and family to talk to you?
It was very difficult. It is here that the appreciation and recognition of “Icarus” and the Academy Awards really changed the conversation. In the weeks following his death, every journalist was after Hatice. As I approached her and the other people they were able to see my previous work. Hatice invited me to visit him in Istanbul about a month after his assassination. I didn’t bring any film crew. The next five weeks I believed there. It was a painful time in his life and I just kept explaining that I hadn’t been there a day, a week or a month. I told him: If we do this, we will go on this journey together. I promised that if she kept me in her life I would save Jamal.
At Sundance Premiere, you challenged distributors to “… don’t be afraid and deserve it for the global release it deserves.” How did that turn out?
[Netflix CEO] Reed Hastings was there that day and so was Hillary Clinton. We had permanent ovations. People were wiping tears from their eyes as the elephants took the stage. It was the same scene in each of our screenings. We are blessed with incredible reviews of all businesses. In any general situation you must think that this film is going to be acquired and distributed. And yet it was not only acquired and distributed, there was universal silence. Not a single offer. Not for one dollar or 12 12 million, which was paid for another documentary title at the festival. Nothing. It was literally like no one knew me. It was startling and shocking.
Six months later Tom Ortenberg and Briar Cliff Entertainment came forward and said, hey we want to distribute this picture. That’s nice. People will be able to rent this picture on-demand. But all I wanted was for the film to reach about 200 million families around the world. I wanted people to get into it easily. Instead we threw together global distribution here and there.
Will it have a cooling effect on movies that want to deal with such controversial issues?
This is a frustrating and opening moment in front of the eyes that any filmmaker who wants to tell such a story needs attention. These global media organizations are supporting and encouraging and silencing such films despite the fact that their audiences want such content. I was told that there was an “Icarus” somewhere around I00 Million Views. I don’t know if that’s right, but I know it was enough. The decision not to take “The Dissident” had nothing to do with critical reviews, had nothing to do with the global audience’s appetite for watching a documentary-thriller, but had all to do with business interests and politics and who knows, he probably knew the pressure from the Saudi government. . Netflix has removed the episode of Hassan Minhaj’s “Patriot Act” [at the Saudi government’s request] In 2019 and defending this decision, he said, “We are not true to the power company. We are an Entertainment Company ”has been fighting to bring this film into the world and to shed light on the human rights violations taking place in that state. These companies, who have decided not to distribute this film, in my opinion, it is complicated.
Why didn’t they want to publish “The Descendant” with these companies? If so, what was their reaction?
It has not been responded to.
What does it mean? Are they wary of angering the Saudi royal family because they have money from Saudi Arabia or want to access their market?
My guess is both. The decision to keep our doors open for Saudi business and Saudi money is better than doing anything to the displeasure of the state. One stands behind the truth of electricity and the other says we are not true to the power company, so it is true to the power company if it is convenient but when their business does not integrate with it or it can affect their customer growth, they are not. The same can be said for all streaming companies. Jeff Bezos is on stage with Hatice in the picture. Jamal has worked for Jeff Bezos [at the Washington Post, which Bezos owns]. The same can be said about Amazon. I don’t want to point a finger at anyone because that’s all. This is a situation where business, customer growth, investment were more important than human rights. There must be more accountability. Not just at the business level, but also at the political level. Trump vetoed the will of both the House and the Senate to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for this crime. He continued to sell their weapons. He is trying to get the judiciary to release Mohammad bin Salman from the case.
Would you still work for Netflix or other streamers who refused to disclose “Decadent”?
Listen, this is my career. It’s my job. I am sure I will have other projects that do not take up such issues and are not at risk with their business interests. When projects come along, I would be happy to work with any of these companies. Look, I love Netflix. I really, really what. I’m so grateful to them because without Netflix “Icarus” wouldn’t be what it used to be. I am not insulted by this. I’m not personally angry I don’t see anything happening as a person. I see it as just a business. I understand this at a business level. I don’t agree with that, but I got it. I’m not crazy. I’m disappointed.
What message do you want the audience to move away from the picture?
#JusticeFord has a hashtag called Jamal and the question has to be what does justice mean? We know that Mohammed bin Salman will not stand up for this murder trial. We know that the Henmans he sent will not really get a chance to be judged. We need to look to the future. So what people will take from the film is knowledge, because knowledge is power. Like “Icarus” or “Blackfish” or “Cove” I hope this film has the power to change hearts and minds. As many people as possible attend the “Desident” I hope there have been calls for action. I hope this happens on social media or by writing letters to congressmen or senators. I hope the first thing people do is spread the word. The second thing I hope is that they will use the power of free speech in our country and have been blessed to change the narrative. The Arab Spring happened because of Twitter, the Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement caught up because of social media. We have seen that change can come through concerted action.
Disclosure: SRMG, a Saudi publishing and media company that does business publicly, remains a minority investor in PMC, a variety of parent companies.