The documentary “Kingdom of Silence” is debuting on Showtime two years to the day after Saudi agents killed and dismembered the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Its aim is not simply to serve as a memorial, or as muckraking, but to capture Khashoggi’s career in all its contours and contradictions against a backdrop of changing geopolitics.
As Marwan Bishara, a political analyst for Al Jazeera who knew Khashoggi, puts it, “At each and every junction in modern Saudi history, and modern U.S.-Saudi relations, Jamal was there, at that crossroad — either reporting, explaining or spinning.” Nawaf Obaid, a colleague of Khashoggi’s when both were working for the Saudi government, takes issue with the frequent characterization, including by The New York Times, of Khashoggi as a “dissident.” (“The Dissident,” incidentally, is also the title of a forthcoming Khashoggi documentary from the “Icarus” director Bryan Fogel.)
Rather, “Kingdom of Silence” portrays Khashoggi as a protean insider-outsider. At different times, he played the role of supporting the Saudi government and of holding it accountable, all the while maintaining a faith in the country — a faith shaken when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman barred him from writing there, and he went into exile in Washington D.C.
Sometimes his optimism proved badly naïve. He supported the United States’s invasion of Iraq. The New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright notes that when Khashoggi interviewed a young Osama bin Laden, Khashoggi “looked at bin Laden with stars in his eyes,” and that he became disillusioned later on. The actor Nasser Faris reads Khashoggi’s writings as narration throughout, and Khashoggi’s assessment of bin Laden after bin Laden’s death in 2011 — “You were beautiful and brave in those beautiful days in Afghanistan, before you surrendered to hatred” — is misleadingly overlaid on footage of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, as if the remarks were written years earlier.
Rowley’s impressive access, and the film’s brisk contextualization of relationships and political alliances, can make it difficult to assess how much weight to accord each statement, or to decide what to think of Khashoggi — which may be part of the point. Shortly after the movie has walked us through Khashoggi’s grisly killing, it is jaw-dropping to hear David Rundell, a former American diplomat who served in Saudi Arabia, say that “Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally, and I do think that outweighs the death of one person.”
But the film’s primary virtue is in presenting many friends and colleagues of Khashoggi who illuminate his ideals, ventures and personal relationships — which is useful, because, as the human rights activist Mohamed Soltan puts it, “Jamal chose what information he shared with each person.” Khashoggi’s international life, often lived warily, means that no one documentary could capture the full picture.
Kingdom of Silence
Not rated. In English and Arabic, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes. Watch on Showtime.
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