“We began this film thinking that it was a murder mystery,” says director Rick Rowley about his Showtime documentary “Kingdom of Silence,” which tells the story of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In 2018 Khashoggi was assassinated by the Saudi government after publicly criticizing the regime. “But the more we discovered, the clearer it became that the far more interesting question and story was just below the surface … Who was this man who was so dangerous that the kingdom would risk so much to silence him?” Rowley joined us for our “Meet the Experts” documentary panel. Watch our video interview with him above.
“The story that we uncovered was epic in scope,” Rowley explains. “It spans decades, and it spanned continents. Jamal Khashoggi lived his life at the center of a whirlwind.” He was an early acquaintance of Osama bin Laden and a former defender of the Saudi royal family, but the events of the 21st century — from 9/11 to the Arab Spring — forced him to reexamine his values and loyalties. “His story is a tragedy and is horrific in many ways, but it also to me is a redemption story. Jamal’s a man who sees his heroes who he’s helped create, who he’s lionized and defended in the press … he sees them turn into villains before his eyes.”
“Kingdom” also tells the story of an even grander tragedy, because while Khashoggi eventually felt the need to atone for his support of the Saudi regime, the United States has never similarly reckoned with its own “toxic relationship” with the nation. “We have meddled in the affairs of countries in that region for far too long,” Rowley argues. “It is beyond the time that we as a nation re-examine our relationship with Saudi Arabia and our place in that part of the world.”
But Rowley’s effort to tell the story of Khashoggi’s life and death wasn’t just to explore the follies of American foreign policy. It was also to stand in solidarity with a fellow journalist: “I think all of us as journalists, when one of our colleagues is murdered like that, we have a responsibility to do what we can to rescue their story from the silence that their killers would impose.” Governments often turn a blind eye to protect their own interests (as the US did following Khashoggi’s murder), so “it is the community of journalists that protect and defend each other and keep their stories alive.”
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