Cinematographer and producer Jake Swantko had to move quickly if he and director Bryan Fogel wanted to dive into the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post journalist who was captured, killed and dismembered at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul.
The story was still moving as Fogel and Swantko were starting to think about following the scandal for the documentary that became “The Dissident,” now available on demand and in select theaters. “It started with a two-camera package and a one-man band shooting those important scenes where people were living in the moment of what was happening,” Swantko explains.
Barely a week before, Swantko had been on vacation in Italy, but the story of murder, power, a cover-up and standing up for what you believe in had captured his interest. A key player in the film is Omar Abdulaziz, an outspoken Saudi dissident who worked with Khashoggi and wanted to expose how the Saudi government was using Twitter to discredit anyone who criticized the kingdom.
“So much of the film is just me and Omar,” Swantko says. “So much of that relationship relies on trust.” That meant going to dinner, breakfast, coffee and drinks together. “Everything leads to a better understanding of the story if people can feel like you care — which I do — rather than extracting information from them and putting it on display.” Swantko went so far as to present the movie to Abdulaziz and offered to give him all memory cards of the interview should he change his mind.
The opening of the film demonstrates the kind of access Swantko had, with Abdulaziz on the phone in a Canadian hotel room with another Saudi dissident three months after Khashoggi’s murder.
Swantko knew the film was not going to be shot cinema vérité style; he was aiming for something different to show the scale of the murder. “I wanted to create images that felt like a narrative,” he says.
With the doc having secured funding from the Human Rights Foundation, the cinematographer combined Panavision lenses with the lightweight Red Weapon Helium camera, which let him shoot rich 8K images as he built different worlds, re-creating scenes based on days of intimate interviews, including social media snapshots and animation while allowing the doc to unfold like a spy thriller.
Fogel and Swantko spent a year in Turkey, where they spoke with members of the police and secured a transcript of what happened in the room where Khashoggi was murdered. Following the trail took the filmmakers to seven locations, where they hired local crews of up to 12 people, plus a translator.
“I had the translator there or was pantomiming the things that you want to see done,” Swantko says. “None of it is stock footage; it’s all original. As you grow as a cinematographer, you want to fight for every shot that is in the movie.”