By C.J. Hirschfield
(January 17, 2023)
Two years ago, an extraordinary documentary on Russian opposition party leader Alexei Navalny was recorded. The film has just been released; he has not. Having been charged with everything from fraud to having created an extremist group “with the purpose of inciting hatred toward officials and oligarchs,” he currently is imprisoned in solitary confinement, facing up to 20 years in a Russian penal colony. Navalny is on the Oscar shortlist for best documentary feature, and I attended a screening followed by a panel that included the film’s director, Daniel Roher, producer Shane Boris and Christo Grozev , the lead Russia investigative journalist for Bellingcat, whose remarkable work utilizing open source digital tools tracked down the Kremlin’s team that poisoned and nearly killed Navalny. (Watch the conversation below)Director Roher is clear on his goal for the Navalny: “To get as many people in the world to watch it.” His objective? “To keep him alive.”
Navalny is at once a thriller that rivals any you’ve ever seen –who poisoned the popular politician, would his life be saved, will he return to his country knowing he’ll be immediately arrested? it’s also a profile of a man whose conviction, bravery and charisma have placed him at the center of the fight for a country’s soul. To call it timely and relevant would be an understatement.
The film’s interviews allow us to know Navalny; as a committed family man, and as someone whose humor and mastery of social media ensure he gets his message out to millions of followers. His belief that Putin’s regime is corrupt as well as evil clearly resonates with many of his fellow Russians, as footage of huge protests, and the Kremlin’s violent response, illustrate. In the face of all of this, there is humor, “his brand,” says the filmmaker. Roher doesn’t paint Navalny without flaws—in a compelling scene we hear the politician respond to allegations that he had previously aligned himself with the far right in order to build a coalition.
When they began shooting the documentary, the team didn’t know the outrageous story that would unfold—that Navalny would be poisoned with the novichok nerve agent that would kick in on a plane ride home to Moscow, and that he would be near death. The footage shot on the plane is absolutely harrowing. The Kremlin’s theories about his illness? Low blood sugar, or maybe he was taking anti-depressants, like the people in the West do.
Navalny’s team clearly wasn’t buying it, and the film follows the jaw-dropping series of events that ultimately lead the poisoning right to the halls of the Kremlin. Bellcat’s Grozev worked with data brokers, buying phone records, and flight and car registration information that resulted in a short list of suspects. He paid in bitcoin.
In one of what will no doubt become the most memorable scenes in any documentary, Navalny initiates prank calls to some of the suspects, claiming to be a government official who simply wants details on why the poisoning operation was unsuccessful. It is all captured on film. He hits the jackpot when a chemist associated with novichok tells the whole story—exactly who and what was involved in the process. Director Roher, who doesn’t speak Russian, did not know what to expect when the calls began.
As he observed the shocked faces of those in the room, he said “You didn’t need to know Russian to know what was going down.” He adds, “I knew this would be the most extraordinary thing I’d ever film.”
The chemist has not been heard of since.
Producer Boris (whose other film, Fire of Love, is also up for an Academy Award) would have preferred to hold onto the footage until the film’s release, but Navalny wanted to immediately share it to further his case against the Putin regime. “It had to get out as soon as possible,” Boris agreed. It has been viewed by over 40 million.
It was a given that if Navalny chose to return to his homeland, he would be arrested and put away. The film asks him—and his family—about his decision to do so. There was just no question—even his daughter explains, “It’s something worth fighting for.”
We see footage on his final plane ride home, complete with protesters and Russian police in waiting.
In the panel session, we are told about the work of Navalny’s team in exile in Lithuania, where 99 percent of their efforts focus on stopping the war in Ukraine; one percent on Russian corruption. Their budget and staff numbers have increased dramatically.
While in exile, the media-savvy Navalny streamed videos a couple of hours each week. But at the start of the war in Ukraine, his team launched a new channel, Popular Politics, which now broadcasts about 30 hours a week on exactly what is happening in Ukraine.
Director Roher expressed his dream that Navalny will someday be able to see the film screened in Moscow, surrounded by his supporters and his film team.
He told his audience “Your homework is to tell five or ten friends to see this film.”
Consider yourself told.
The CNN website for Navalny is packed with information and clips.
Editor’s Note: You will have to see Navalny to understand this photo:
Daniel Roher is a Canadian documentary film director from Toronto. His Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band was the opening film of the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival followed by numerous festival showings and awards.
Roher previously directed the short documentaries Survivors Rowe which was a CSA nominee for Best Documentary Program at the 5th Canadian Screen Awards in 2017, and Sourtoe: The Story of the Sorry Cannibal, which was a CSA nominee for Best Direction in a Web Program or Series at the 6th Canadian Screen Awards in 2018.
His newest film, Navalny, was released in 2022
The Commonwealth Club of San Francisco hosted a screening (January 9, 2023) introduced by Navalny’s daughter Dasha and followed by a conversation with Daniel Roher conversation, producer Shane Boris and Christo Grozev, Bellingcat’s lead Russian Investigator (who is on Putin’s “wanted list” ),moderated by Steven Saum of St. Mary’s College.
Watch the Film Independent Interview
Read as Indiewire goes behind the scenes on the making of the film plus Filmmaker’s Toolkit podcast.
Navalny Director Says Putin’s “Rein on Power Has Never Been Shakier” and Russia Is a ‘Failed State’ as Eric Kohn interviews director Daniel Roher.
Alexey Navalny interviewed on 60 Minutes in 2017.
Watch Navalny’s Popular Politics channel (in Russian without English subtitles)
Read Jason Gorber’s interview with Roher in Point of View Magazine.
C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.
C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”