How Award-Winning Filmmakers Make Dangerous Documentaries That No Major Distributor Will Touch

·8 min read

When documentary filmmaker Ryan White made “Assassins,” he needed his adopted grandmother Dr. Ruth’s support to tell the harrowing and jaw-dropping story of the two sex workers who were on trial in Malaysia for assassinating Kim Jong-un’s half-brother. “She hated that I was doing it, worried for me the entire time,” said White, who received a 2017 Emmy nomination for his film about the death of a beloved Catholic nun in “The Keepers.” “She knew by the end I was compelled to get out the truth about these two women.”

Bryan Fogel won an 2018 Best Documentary Oscar for “Icarus,” which led the Olympic Committee to ban Russia from the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. For “The Dissident,” he took on the assassination of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi and obtained Turkish intelligence transcripts and audio of Khashoggi’s murder that reveal mind-numbing violence. “This is a fight for freedom of speech,” he said. “This is focused on human rights. This is what we’re going through in our own country and fighting for democracy.”

Both filmmakers rode the swells of global Netflix success, but chose to continue the pursuit of difficult and dangerous stories that did not lure major distributors. (Greenwich Entertainment distributes “Assassins,” while “The Dissident” will debut via Briarcliff Entertainment.) Corporate parents may have been unwilling to take on the wrath of Saudi Arabia or North Korea. “[“Assassins”] is a lot scarier to corporations and companies,” said White. “North Korea has alienating factors of its own.”

At a recent International Documentary Association panel, Fogel told me that he didn’t feel as if he had a choice. “I felt like I had a responsibility, and it almost felt like a burden,” he said. “I was going to continue to tell stories that I felt would matter, that would have an impact in the world.”

Fogel said he took on the assassination of Khashoggi to “present Jamal’s life in a way that hadn’t been presented on CNN or BBC or in the media.” He also established that crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman hacked the WhatsApp account of Amazon CEO and The Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos, leading to the tabloid leak of his extramarital affair. “The scary, scary takeaway from this was, if you can do this to the richest man in the world, who can’t you go after?”

Fogel’s film debuted to strong reviews at Sundance 2020, but to his surprise and disappointment no majors — studio or streamer — would touch the movie. “I certainly wanted one of the big global streamers to take this film,” Fogel said. “Not anything to do with financial consideration, but because of the platform that they have to let the world see this film and learn.”

“The Dissident” eventually sold to Briarcliff, whose CEO Tom Ortenberg has worked on controversial films like Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” and the Oscar-winning “Spotlight.” More established distributors stayed clear in part because President Donald Trump “brags that he saved Mohammed bin Salman’s ass,” said Fogel.

“The world oftentimes takes its direction from the U.S.,” Fogel said. “The British are still selling them weapons, the French are still selling them weapons, the Germans are still taking investment and money from them. SoftBank is the world’s largest hedge fund; that’s Saudi money. This is a continual whitewashing of your human rights abuses in exchange for their money. There were 800 and some-odd beheadings in Saudi Arabia last year.”

Why not Bezos’ own film distributor? “Amazon acquired a company called Souq, which is the Amazon of Saudi Arabia,” said Fogel. “And so Amazon is doing business with Saudi Arabia. In this case, what we saw was that essentially money, shareholder accountability, and not being willing to fight for human rights ultimately led to those decisions. It’s disappointing.”

He still hopes for a later showing on Amazon or Netflix. “I’m optimistic that these streamers will come back into the fold,” he said. “A new administration might help in that too, because there’s a lot of fear among these streamers as well, because they’re not getting support from the current administration.”

White began “The Assassins” in February 2017 when he was contacted by Doug Bock Clark, the author of a GQ article about the lurid Malaysian assassination. Two weeks later, he was on a flight to Malaysia, and returned to film there every month for the next two years. “On its face value, it’s a story that’s unbelievable,” White said. “That’s my entry point.”

In this harrowing and jaw-dropping story, no one disputes that 29-year-old Doan Thi Huong and the 25-year-old Siti Aisyah killed Kim Jong-nam in the Kuala Lumpur airport, sequentially pressing lethal oil (potent chemical nerve agent VX) on his face with their bare hands. The courtroom drama tracks the women — via graphically enhanced surveillance videos and interviews with journalists and defense lawyers — to figure out if they were trained killers or the duped pawns of North Korean spies. If the judge found them guilty, they would be executed.

White arrived in time to start documenting the women’s trial and the defense lawyers had nothing to lose by cooperating with him. Pundits believed that they would be convicted and executed, but as he pored through reams of evidence White started to be convinced that both women were innocent.

“That’s when it got serious,” he said. “Everyone was telling me they were going to die. We were making the film as fast as possible in the edit room to have the film ready to go before the execution. Due to the short appeals process in Malaysia, we thought on the eve of execution to release the film to stir up an international cry for justice. Both legal teams were desperate to save their defendants’ lives.”

Airport surveillance footage was key, showing four out of seven Interpol-identified North Korean intelligence operatives on site and their interaction with the women. The footage had to be graphically simplified in order to easily track the assassination players.

The movie also shows the rise to power of Kim Jong-un, who was considered a buffoon until he consolidated power and orchestrated this mafia-like hit on his perceived challenger to the throne, his exiled brother. “The effect of the assassination of his brother was huge,” said White. “It sent fear down the spine of everyone that he could orchestrate an assassination so brazen in broad daylight with international assassins in the airport who thought they were on a reality show and didn’t know what they were doing.”

The women seemed expendable until their respective governments got involved. The filmmaker was afraid he would never meet them; for two years, all he could do was watch them from afar in court. “They didn’t know me,” he said, “until it was all over.”

“Assassins” also took a bumpy road to distribution. A few months ago, Hulu dropped out of releasing the movie. Magnolia picked up non-U.S. rights, and Greenwich Entertainment stepped in to acquire stateside theatrical. “It was considered a dangerous film,” said White. “Distributors and corporate media companies were afraid of North Korea after the Sony hack. It’s not been an easy road to get released. [“The Keepers”] was everywhere, but this was a geopolitical true crime. It was hard to to get out.”

Greenwich’s Andy Bohn is taking the film out via hybrid release to theaters on December 11 as well as virtual cinemas followed by a faster-than-usual five-week transition to PVOD on Apple, Fandango, cable, and Amazon. “We’re an independent company,” said Bohn. “We have more latitude to take on controversial subjects. Ryan is one of the strongest nonfiction filmmakers working today. When the movie came around to us, we didn’t hesitate and made an offer that day.”

White doesn’t know if Trump’s make-nice meetings with the North Korean dictator affected the film’s distribution. Like Fogel, he felt more vulnerable this time around.

“I have been lucky in the past,” he said. “With ‘The Keepers,’ Netflix took on the Catholic Church and the Baltimore police department. To have those resources behind you when you are doing something investigative or dangerous is comforting, it helps. To do it in a world where you’re adding coronavirus and isolation on top of that, that makes the uncertainty of releasing a film like this that much more uncertain. It’s the least enjoyable film I’ve ever made. But the worst feeling would be if people didn’t see it because certain powers are too powerful.”

Greenwich Entertainment will release “Assassins” in theaters and virtual cinemas on December 11, followed by PVOD. Briarcliff Entertainment will release “The Dissident” in theaters on December 18, followed by PVOD.

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