Kingdom of Silence (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): A journalist who cared about his country

Showtime documentary film “Kingdom of Silence” glimpses into the life and career of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, whose brutal murder at the Saudi Arabian embassy in Istanbul, Turkey shocked many of us in October 2018. Mainly revolving around the interviews from various figures who knew Khashoggi, the documentary shows and tells us on how he evolved from a staunch supporter of the Saudi Arabian government to one of its most prominent critics while still deeply caring about his country and people, and that surely makes his death all the more tragic and alarming.

The early part of the documentary mainly focuses on how Khashoggi rose to prominence as a war correspondent during the Soviet–Afghan War in the 1980s. Because it was clear that the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan for getting a chance to expand its geopolitical influence onto many oil-rich Arab countries including Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia and US, which has been its longtime business/political partner for many decades for since oil was found in Saudi Arabia in the 1950s, were certainly willing to support thousands of Muslim fighters gathering in Afghanistan, and Khashoggi drew lots of attention as busily reporting on those zealous Muslim fighters including a certain young man named Osama bin Laden.

Via a number of American foreign policy experts including Ben Rhodes and John O. Brennan, the documentary tells us how smoothly the US government, Saudi Arabia, and those Muslim fighters, called Mujaheddins, worked together during that time. Although the US government, who was headed by President Ronald Reagan during that time, did not like Mujaheddins that much, the Soviet Union was the common enemy for not only them but also Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia gladly functioned as a mediator between the US government and Mujaheddins.

In the end, this unlikely alliance among three different groups led to the eventual evacuation of the Soviet Union army in February 1989, and a close friend of Khashoggi, who fought in the war along with those Muslim fighters, reminisces about how things looked optimistic and hopeful to the people of Afghanistan at that time – and how everything went pretty wrong shortly after that point. Afghanistan and its people came to suffer more upheavals before eventually tumbling into the reign of terror by Taliban during next several years, and that was around the time when bin Laden founded his infamous notorious terror organization after becoming more radicalized and fanatical than before.

What subsequently happened in New York City on September 11th, 2001 certainly devastated Khashoggi a lot, who came to change a lot of his political opinions as watching what was resulted from the sheer atrocity committed by a man who was once close to him. Because most of those terrible hijackers of the 9/11 incident were from Saudi Arabia, both the US government and the Saudi Arabian government were quite cautious about protecting their mutual political/business interest, and Khashoggi was willing to defend his government via his prominent position. As a result, he soon got some big support from several powerful members of the Saudi Arabian royal family.

And then there came the Arab Spring in 2011. Watching millions of young people openly demanding for freedom and democracy in Egypt and many other Arab countries, Khashoggi went through another change in his life and career, and he subsequently became a more active proponent of freedom of expression in his country. As a matter of fact, he actually tried to start a local TV news channel free of any government censorship as supported by one of his main backers in the Saudi Arabian royal family, but, alas, his TV news channel was shut down only after its very first day of broadcasting.

The main reason behind this absurd happening was from one big sudden political change inside Saudi Arabia. After Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud became the new king of Saudi Arabia in 2015, his son Mohammed bin Salman, a.k.a. MBS, was appointed as his deputy prime minister, and MBS soon commenced a series of political purges in addition to having a war with Yemen just for strengthening his and his immediate family’s political power further. Naturally, Khashoggi came to fear for what might happen to him, so he eventually fled to US in June 2017.

While subsequently finding himself separated from his world as well as his family, Khashoggi became quite lonely and depressed, but he eventually decided to express his political opinions in public more than before. He frequently published a number of critical articles on the Saudi Arabian government via the Washington Post, and that certainly led to more pressure and worry for him, but he was quite determined not to step back at all from the consequences of his risky political actions.

However, MBS and his Saudi Arabian government turned out to be quite willing to do anything for stopping Khashoggi, and the documentary gives us a chilling account of what happened to Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian embassy in Istanbul on that horrible day. Although it was quite apparent that Khashoggi’s murder was ordered by MBS, President Donald J. Trump and his US government did not do anything at all just because, well, America comes first above all else.

On the whole, “Kingdom of Silence”, which is directed by Rick Rowley (He also served as the cinematographer of his documentary, by the way), is the engaging presentation of one passionate journalist, and I came to admire Khashoggi more than before. I have some doubt on whether those powerful people responsible for his death will be put on a trial in the end, but I hope his efforts and legacy will not be forgotten at least.

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