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Are The Streaming Giants Afraid Saudi Arabia?

Documentary about Saudi Arabia’s murder of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi, from director of Academy-Award winning “Icarus,” available to rent on-demand after streaming services pass


 | February 17, 2021

Feb 17 2021

Netflix won its first feature-length Academy Award for “Icarus” – a 2017 documentary about the Russia’s Olympics doping scandal by director Bryan Fogel.

Curiously, none of the streaming giants seem interested in Fogel’s latest effort: a documentary titled “The Dissident,” about Saudi Arabia’s murder of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi. Not Netflix, not Hulu, not HBO Max, Not Disney+, not AppleTV+, not Amazon Prime. 

What’s going on here? Are the streaming giants afraid of Saudi Arabia? Or are they worried about losing out on possible future business? 

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Khashoggi was a critic of the kingdom who called for moderation; he was killed by government agents who ambushed him when he went inside a Saudi consulate in Istanbul to pick up paperwork for his upcoming marriage. His body was then sawed into pieces so it could be smuggled out. Audio of his murder is included in the documentary, as are interviews with his fiancé. 

According to the Associated Press, “Intelligence reports concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing. Mohammed denied Saudi Arabia was behind the murder, then eventually granted it was carried out by agents of the Saudi government. Mohammed has claimed it wasn’t by his orders.” 

The documentary, which currently has a 97% fresh rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, also details Saudi Arabia’s efforts to hack journalists and others it views as a threat, including Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who owns the Washington Post. 

“The Dissident” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings among those in the audience, according to the Associated Press. But according to the AP, neither Netflix nor any of the other giant streaming services asked for an advance look at the movie before the festival, which is unusual for a director with a recent Oscar win. 

Fogel told the Associated Press that Netflix shying away from the movie is “incredibly disappointing” given that “Icarus” delivered Netflix’s first Academy Award for a full-length movie. (The company won its first-ever Oscar in 2017 for a short.)  

A spokesperson for Netflix declined to explain to the Associated Press why the company decided to pass on the movie. But the AP reports that Netflix signed a production deal with the Saudi studio Telfaz11 in November. 

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When “Icarus” won the Oscar award in 2018, Fogel said during his acceptance that, “We hope ‘Icarus’ is a wake-up call — yes, about Russia, but more than that, about the importance of telling the truth, now more than ever.” 

At the Sundance premier of “The Dissident,” Fogel likewise urged media companies to “stand up to Saudi Arabia” and not be scared off. 

Fogel told the AP that he was not offered even a single dollar for his movie from the streaming giants, even though the heads of most of the streaming services were at Sundance. Meanwhile, Apple and entertainment company A24 reportedly paid $12 million for the documentary “Boys State,” which is about 17-year-old boys playing mock politics in Texas. 

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Fogel told the AP that it wasn’t just Netflix who passed, but everyone. “What I think Hollywood learned from the Sony hack is that the risk of embarrassment is too high,” Fogel said. 

Hollywood, it seems, is often obsessed with calling President Trump a dictator. Yet time and time again, it bows to actual dictatorships.

“I do believe that people in positions of power like that, with wealth and resources, if they’re not willing to stand up for human rights abuses like this, for what I consider the greater good of the planet, it becomes an increasingly scary place for us to live,” Fogel said. “We all become less safe.”

“The Dissident” was eventually acquired by independent distributor Briarcliff Entertainment, which was founded by a film exec who previously distributed the movies “Spotlight” and “Snowden.” It is available to rent on-demand from Amazon, iTunes, and Roku.

Fogel is a director who is willing to stand up to human rights abuses. Rent the movie. Let us know what you think.    

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