It has been two years since Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and was never seen again. The royal family at first claimed Khashoggi had left the consulate on his own, but then changed their story to say a fight had broken out. But the full truth, later confirmed by the CIA, was far worse: He was murdered inside the consulate by a hit squad sent by the frequent target of Khashoggi’s critiques, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. His body was then dismembered and disposed of—and one of the hit squad even exited the consulate wearing Khashoggi’s clothing in an attempt to prop up the subterfuge.
His death spread outrage, not just among his fellow journalists but among advocates for free speech throughout the world. Saudi Arabia this year convicted several members of the hit squad of murder, but whether or not they will be punished or jailed remains uncertain given that the operation was almost certainly ordered by the crown prince himself.
Yet Khashoggi’s passion for free speech lives on, and the second of 2020’s documentaries about his life and death, “Kingdom of Silence,” which premiered on Friday on Showtime.
Director Rick Rowley (“16 Shots,” “Dirty Wars”) is also a journalist by trade, and thus felt that because a colleague was murdered by the very people he had criticized, it was important to keep Khashoggi’s story in the public consciousness.
“Jamal was one of our own. So whenever one of our colleagues is killed, it falls on all of us to try to rescue what we can from the silence that their killers would impose,” Rowley said via phone.
Rowley’s own career as a journalist took him to Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, which were all places where the United States and Saudi Arabia had taken up arms against common enemies. Thus the two nations are bound together not only in war but, thanks to the kingdom’s oil reserves, economics. Rowley said that the dark side of that alliance isn’t discussed openly, which was another reason he felt compelled to make “Kingdom of Silence.”
But finding people willing to speak about Khashoggi, or criticize “MBS” and the royal family, proved difficult for the filmmaker. For one, the Saudi royal family owns, in whole or in part, most of the media in the kingdom, and thus journalists inside the country who spoke to Rowley on camera risked not only their careers but their very lives.
“Even mild critics of the region are jailed, tortured and killed in Saudi Arabia,” Rowley said, adding that members of Khashoggi’s family still face travel bans imposed by the regime. “So it was a long and painstaking process to find and win the trust of people who were closest to him and willing to speak with us.”
Rowley said that he and documentarian superstar Alex Gibney wound up discussing Khashoggi’s murder at a party not long after it happened. Gibney had already been considering a film about the journalist but then handed the reins to Rowley, who said that executives at Showtime were all in from the get-go, no matter the dangers.
“I’m sure there will be Twitter attacks against it [and] we’ve also been threatened personally,” Rowley said of MBS’s notorious army of Twitter trolls. “When you begin a project like this you can’t be naive. You have to operate under the assumption that your communications and movements are going to be monitored.
“Every day you’re talking to people who are the targets of government surveillance or are agents of that government surveillance—and may even be working for Saudi intelligence for all you know.”
Rowley hired actor Nasser Faris (“The Looming Tower”) to read the late journalist’s articles, emails and text messages in an approximation of Khashoggi’s voice, which is heard throughout “Kingdom of Silence.”
“It was important to have it be an authentically accented Arab voice speaking Jamal’s words. [Nasser] was fascinated by the narrative arc of Jamal’s character, but what he was doing was marking the chapter turns in Jamal’s journey from insider to exile to martyr, and the turmoil and contradictions he went through,” Rowley said.
Rowley and his crew took many risks in making “Kingdom of Silence,” including sneaking in on a tourist visa after Saudi Arabia denied him a tourist visa. And while in the kingdom under the auspices of that tourist visa, he and his crew stayed at the very same Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh where MBS allegedly imprisoned and tortured hundreds of his enemies.
“This luxury hotel had been turned into a jail and a torture center. In order to film inside it, I had to stay there for one night and prowl the halls after dark,” Rowley said.
Another documentary about Khashoggi, called “The Dissident,” premiered at Sundance in January, and it was one of the first full-length films about the journalist whose final columns appeared in the Washington Post (full disclosure: I work part-time on the Washington Post opinion desk). Rowley said he saw Bryan Fogel’s film in Park City, but rather than view it as competition, he sees any way to honor Khashoggi as a positive. What’s more, the multitude of streaming services and channels has increased the avenues for documentaries like “Kingdom of Silence” to be seen by the public, especially in this strange year of 2020.
“We were very lucky that we finished our last shoot just days before the lockdown began and were immediately thrown into remote post-production,” Rowley said of completing his own film earlier this year. “[It] was complicated as it was a bit slower than it normally would be, but it was a great way to spend a big chunk of the quarantine.”
If Rowley downplays the dangers he experienced making “Kingdom of Silence,” it is likely due to his time reporting from conflict-ridden zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. And even given all the risks he undertook, Rowley says they are nothing compared to the bravery exhibited by Khashoggi and other critics of the Saudi royal family.
“People who don’t come back to the United States after the shoot wraps are left to face the consequences whenever [the film] comes out,” he said. “Most of those people remain anonymous in our credits, but they’re the [ones] taking risks on the front lines because they believe so much in telling the story.
“They believe if Americans could just see and know the truth of what was happening there, things would change,” Rowley said. “When you’re confronted with a hope like that, you can’t be cynical; you have to embrace it and try to deserve it.”
“Kingdom of Silence” premiered Friday, October 2nd on Showtime.