‘All I could do was film’: the making of a shocking movie on Alexei Navalny

In the eye-opening documentary Navalny, film-maker Daniel Roher was given unprecedented access to a Russian politician surviving an assassination attempt and a prison sentence

In an interview broadcast last weekend, Jake Tapper of CNN put it to Volodymyr Zelenskiy that he might not survive the war with Russia and asked how he would want to be remembered.

“A human being that loved life to the fullest and loved his family and loved his motherland – definitely not a hero,” the Ukrainian president replied through an interpreter. “I want people to take me as I am: a regular human.”

At the opening of the documentary Navalny, director Daniel Roher poses a similar question to Russian opposition leader, lawyer and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny: if he is killed, what is his message to the Russian people? Navalny challenges the premise: “Oh, come on, Daniel! No, no way. It’s like you’re making movie for the case of my death!”

At that moment Navalny looks indomitable, a charismatic and courageous figure relaxing in a moodily lit restaurant in Germany. But today, less than 18 months later, he is languishing in a Russian prison while President Vladimir Putin wages a war that many call genocidal.

Roher had no desire to chronicle a death foretold but understands the preciousness of what he recorded: “This was the last interview Alexei would give for many years. Maybe ever.”

If Roher had a dollar for every time someone told him his film was prescient or timely, he would be a billionaire by now. The 98-minute Navalny premiered in January at a virtual Sundance Film Festival where it won both the documentary audience award and the festival favourite award.

As Lindsey Bahr, a film writer for the Associated Press, put it, Navalny contains shadowy operatives, truth-seeking journalists, conspiracy theories, Soviet-era poisons and a handsome, altruistic family man risking his life to fight a would-be despot. She added: “Navalny is so taut and suspenseful you’d think John le Carré had left behind a secret manuscript that’s only just coming to light now.”

Its subject is, like Zelenskiy, undeniably telegenic and invariably dressed for action rather than in suit and tie. He also has a story to tell. Now 45, Navalny grew up in a series of closed military towns outside Moscow, the son of a Red Army communications officer and an economist. He spent summers at his grandmother’s cottage in the Ukrainian countryside near Chernobyl.

But when he was nine, in 1986, Navalny’s uncle made sure the visit did not happen because of an explosion at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl. The Soviet government’s efforts to cover up the disaster, and his family’s related health problems, are said to have forged Navalny’s distrust of authority and desire for transparency.

Roher recounts: “He told me these stories about how his grandmother would send his father a smoked salmon in the mail and his mother would bury it in the garden because she knew that it was pulsating with radioactive material.”

Navalny studied law, took corrupt state organisations to court and blogged about the outcome. He released reports about corruption in the Putin administration, endured arrests and intimidation and tried to run for president. He also showed mastery of social media; his younger fans are all over TikTok.

At one point in the film, Navalny tells Roher that he believed his celebrity might make him safer. The director can be heard replying: “Boy, were you wrong.” Navalny acknowledges with a chuckle: “Yes, I was very wrong.”

Roher, a 28-year-old Canadian best known for Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band, has never been to Russia. But he had extraordinary access during Navalny’s brief stay in Germany in late 2020 and early 2021 as the opposition star recovered from being poisoned and sought the truth behind the failed assassination attempt.

The director recalls: “When you meet him for the first time, he’s a bit reserved. It was a weird context in which we were meeting and he was trying to get a vibe for us. But he and I became fast friends. He’s funny and charming and he’s the world’s best documentary subject: there’s nothing I could ask him to do or film that he wouldn’t let me do or film.

Police officers detain Alexei Navalny in 2013
Police officers detain Alexei Navalny in 2013. Photograph: Evgeny Feldman/AP

“He has that quality that is often ascribed to master politicians, making you feel like you’re the only guy in the room, like you are important. That’s how I was made to feel when I met him for the first time but I had to be mindful that, in order for this film to work, I had to make this documentary with a critical gaze towards him.

“This could not be a hero worshipping piece and I think he appreciated the integrity of that approach. To his credit, there was nothing that he wouldn’t let me ask him about. There was nothing off limits.”

To illustrate the point, there is the troubling question of Navalny’s flirtations with the far right early in his career. Last year Amnesty International stripped him of “prisoner of conscience” status after reviewing comments he made 15 years ago – including a video that appears to compare immigrants to cockroaches – that they found amounted to hate speech.

Roher quizzes him about having marched alongside nationalists and racists. Navalny responds that coalition-building is a means to the end of defeating a totalitarian regime: “I consider it’s my political superpower,” he insists. “I can talk to everyone.

“Anyway, well, they are citizens of Russian Federation and if I want to fight Putin, if I want to be leader of a country, I cannot just ignore the huge part of it. There are lot of people who call themselves nationalists. OK, let’s discuss it.”

The exchange brings to mind a line from Bertolt Brecht’s 1943 play Life of Galileo: “Unhappy the land that needs heroes.”

Speaking from a New York hotel, Roher reflects: “Here’s a guy who was seeking the presidency of the biggest country in the world. Absolutely he must be scrutinised. Absolutely his past affiliation with these unsavoury characters must be questioned. We must understand what motivated him, what his political positions are and, to that effect, I must say he’s a really good sport.

“I think the cornerstone of Alexei’s political philosophy is that debate and discussion is critical for a healthy democracy. He doesn’t shy away from answering tough questions. I hope I didn’t shy away from asking them. Of course, it was critically important. The film wouldn’t work if we didn’t do that.”

But did Roher find Navalny’s answers about the dubious company he has kept satisfactory? “At the end of the day, Alexei is operating in the context of Russian politics, which is nebulous and complex and mysterious and candidly I don’t fully understand it. I don’t speak Russian. This is not my area of expertise.

Navalny documentary film still

“But if he is to believed at his word, the way he perceives this is that he’s trying to build this coalition to defeat the authoritarian regime and that means having to engage with people that are unsavoury, that are not good characters. That’s a political calculation.

“It essentially boils down to the enemy of my enemy is my friend and, while I don’t agree with that as someone who grew up in Canada as a liberal, I understand what motivates him, and I understand why he holds those positions and why he’s willing to engage with those type of individuals.”

The film includes testimony from Navalny’s wife, Yulia, and daughter Dasha, who is studying in the US. Roher was stunned by their support for Navalny’s ambitions. “He has a spine made of steel, a character made of iron, and his family is right there with him. These are extraordinarily strong people.

“Imagine being put through what Yulia has been put through and she’s poised and dignified with the air of the future first lady. It’s a stunning thing to witness and that matriculates down to his children Dasha and [son] Zakhar. How devastating it must be for them to have their father so far away and inaccessible. But I think the family understands that what he’s trying to accomplish is vital and important.”

The central drama of the documentary is the poisoning of Navalny on a flight from Siberia to Moscow in August 2020; it includes footage in which he can be heard moaning like a man under torture. The pilot staged an emergency landing in Omsk where Navalny was immediately hospitalised.

Yulia and supporters helped make the case for him to be treated elsewhere and he was soon transported to Berlin for medical care. After he emerged from a coma, the German government determined that he had been poisoned with novichok, a lethal Soviet-era nerve agent. The Kremlin denied the allegation.

The film shows Navalny working with the investigative journalists Christo Grozev and Maria Pevchikh to track down his suspected poisoners. That staple of detective movies, an evidence board with faces linked by pieces of string, is on the wall with Putin’s face at the top.

In one riveting scene at a rented Airbnb in Germany’s Black Forest, Navalny, pretending to be an aide to a top Federal Security Service (FSB) official, calls the suspects one by one on speakerphone – early in the morning to catch them off guard. Roher remembers it vividly.

Dasha Navalnaya, Daniel Roher and Yulia Navalnaya Warner Bros at the New York Premiere of Navalny
Dasha Navalnaya, Daniel Roher and Yulia Navalnaya at the New York premiere of Navalny. Photograph: Marion Curtis/StarPix for Warner Bros/Rex/Shutterstock

“I asked Christo the night before what his expectations were for the plan that they had hatched to call the murderers and Christo wrote it off and said it might be good for the film, it might not, who knows, but let’s just shoot it.

“We did five or six phone calls before they got [FSB operative] Konstantin Kudryavtsev on the line. I don’t speak a word of Russian but, if you were there, you didn’t have to speak the language to understand something extraordinary was happening.

“Maria Pevchikh’s jaw was unhinged, it hit the floor, and I understood that whoever was on the other end of this phone was duped. They got him and he spilled the beans and I’m just grateful that Niki Waltl [director of photography] and myself were there to capture it.

The documentary climaxes with Navalny’s January 2021 flight back to Russia where he knows that he will be immediately arrested and imprisoned.

Roher cannot forget his last hours with Navalny. “I remember how palpable the stress was and Navalny, the nucleus of this moment, trying his very best to be light and buoyant but the energy was so heavy and thick. I was there in the hotel room trying to be invisible, not doing a good job because the first thing he did was he started screaming at me and then he apologised.

“We didn’t know what was going to happen. We didn’t know if he’d get arrested. We didn’t know if he would be shot when he got to the airport. All we knew was that this was a man who was guided by his convictions, who could not be dissuaded, who was going back come hell or high water into the lion’s den. And all I could do was film.”

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny looks at photographers standing in the Babuskinsky District Court in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021. Jailed Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny threw a bombshell Wednesday April 20, 2022 into France’s tight and tense presidential election campaign, alleging that Russian leader Vladimir Putin may have bought off French far-right candidate Marine Le Pen with a bank loan. Navalny offered no proof of his allegation, and made it clear he supports incumbent Emmanuel Macron. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)
‘We didn’t know what was going to happen. We didn’t know if he’d get arrested. We didn’t know if he would be shot when he got to the airport.’ Photograph: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

Navalny was greeted by supporters in Moscow but quickly detained. After a year in jail, he was sentenced last month to nine more years for fraud in a case that the US state department condemned as a “sham ruling”. Defiant as ever, Navalny tweeted: “9 years. Well, as the characters of my favorite TV series The Wire’ used to say: You only do two days. That’s the day you go in and the day you come out.’”

He has also urged protests against the war in Ukraine and this week suggested that a man killed in a Ukrainian village, Ilya Ivanovich Navalny, may have been targeted for his last name by the Russian military.

Roher says: “I know that Alexei reads all the press for the film so, while I don’t have direct communication with him, I like to talk to him through interviews. So I’ll just give him a little shout-out and let him know that we’re thinking about him and I hope he’s doing well. We’d have a lot of fun if he were here on our film tour.”

In a crackdown on opposition activists and independent journalists, Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation was last year labeled an extremist organisation by the Kremlin. It is now operating outside Russia but continues to investigate government corruption. As his war goes badly, Putin is crushing dissent with new zeal.

The film ends as it began, with Roher asking Navalny what message he would leave behind for the Russian people if he is killed. The message is simple: never give up. Though they are now thousands of miles apart, Roher has no doubt that Navalny still wants to be the first democratically elected president of what he calls “the beautiful Russia of the future”.

“I just hope that Alexei is able to stay alive, that the public attention that the film is receiving will dissuade the authorities from murdering him in prison. I hope that he has the ability to one day get out and walk his daughter down the aisle and live his life and, if he decides to run for the presidency again, to run for the presidency again. But it’s all of course built on him surviving this horrible moment of his life.”


David Smith in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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