We Are Russia review – portrait of the brave young activists aiming to oust Putin

Alexandra Dalsbaek’s immersive documentary focuses on two engaging twentysomething protesters making a stand against authoritarianism

To borrow a metaphor used by one of the brave activists featured here, if the recent documentary Navalny concerns the speartip, this fired-up addendum is about the spearshaft: the campaigners who defied official harassment to support the Russian opposition leader and then – when his candidature was denied – protest on his behalf during the 2018 presidential elections. With little filter, Franco-Russian journalist Alexandra Dalsbaek shoves us into their street activism and canvassing and it is thoroughly depressing how regularly they encounter accusations, notably from older Russians, that they are paid-up agitators for foreign powers.

Dalsbaek concentrates on Kolya and Milena, two twentysomething refuseniks leading a group trying to boost Navalny’s cause and unseat Putin. One of their favoured stunts is sneaking outside a state duma or FSB headquarters holding up subversive messages to photograph for social media: “Pathetic. Coward. Thief.” Milena – who reminds me a bit of Beanie Feldstein in Booksmart – is a particularly formidable pain in the neck, especially during one scene where she shows up as an observer at a polling station with far more knowledge of electoral procedure than the flunkies running it.

There is something theatrical and vaguely futile, though, about their activities; the sense that, though they are doing the work of maintaining Navalny’s presence in the public space, they are playing a sanctioned game of opposition. The authorities, making the barest gestures of due procedure and stopping just short of anything truly punitive in the case of these little fish, seem happy to play their part. Dalsbaek’s engaging immersiveness doesn’t really concern itself whether it is the right approach. Only during a long, draining street battle scene in which her camera falls mutely on a confusion of jackboots do we feel that more – much more – is needed to challenge this level of authoritarianism. But Putin’s contempt and cynicism are on plain view, and it’s good to know there are people willing to resist.

• We Are Russia is available on True Story on 15 July.


Phil Hoad

The GuardianTramp

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