In August 2020, lawyer, activist, and Russian political opposition leader Alexei Navalny was taken ill while travelling from Siberia to Moscow. Fortunately, he fell ill earlier than his poisoners anticipated, forcing an emergency landing in Omsk, southwest Siberia. When transferred from the Siberian hospital to Berlin, doctors confirmed that he’d been poisoned with the military-grade nerve agent, Novichok. It was the same nerve agent used in the 2018 assassination of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian Officer and British Intelligence double agent, in Salisbury, England. An unlikely coincidence, suspicion immediately fell on the Kremlin and Putin.
Canadian director Daniel Roher documents the efforts of the investigative journalism group Bellingcat, led by Christo Grozev, the lead Russian investigator, and Maria Pevchikh, chief investigator for Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, to expose the men behind the attempted murder. On his return to Moscow in January 2021, Navalny was sentenced to serve two and a half years in Pokrov Penal Colony No. 2 for breach of his parole while in hospital. This is where the documentary ends. On 22 March 2022, international news outlets began reporting that judge Margarita Kotova handed down a new nine-year sentence.
A story of courage, Navalny is an emotional piece of filmmaking. Capturing a brief period in its subject’s life, it entertains us with at times a thrilling crime and detective story. Beyond that, for many of us watching news reports of the invasion of Ukraine, offering platitudes on social media, or condemning Putin in conversation, Roher’s film serves an important purpose. It creates a connection between passive and active protest. The film’s audience is passively protesting against the lies of an autocrat, seeking out the truth that Putin tries to deny through his control of state media and Russia’s information wars on foreign countries.
Grozev says, “Traditional journalism implies you meet with a source and that source telling you a story. In today’s world of fake news, we don’t trust sources because we don’t trust humans – we trust data.” There is always a need to scrutinise our sources of information, but the rapid evolution of technology and the dissemination of information, and misinformation, has made it crucial. Humans are receptors, capable of digesting and forming opinions unconsciously or subconsciously, and we’re vulnerable to being exploited.
It’s an issue not only for those living under autocratic regimes but across the world. In America and the UK, Trumpian politics and Brexit have relied on reducing information to a primitive form, playing on impulsive feelings of nationalist ideals, as well as fear and xenophobia. The dissemination of information, especially in the political sphere, is a game of power politics, and it’s easy to understand Grozev’s faith in data instead of people.
Roher’s documentary will compel the western audience to critique the vulnerabilities of our democracies, to challenge the constructed narratives that feed our political identities. Through Navalny’s political worldview of the need for dialogue and understanding with those whose ideology he doesn’t share, the film is a confronting experience. Can we construct this dialogue and understanding to counter the divisions within our own societies? In post-Brexit Europe and post-Trump America, it’s a contentious enquiry.
In conversation with PopMatters, ahead of its screening at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Roher discusses how the film transcends the Russian context to challenge “good” people across the world to become politically active and not capitulate to authoritarianism. He also speaks about exploring the complex identity of Russia and its people, the fragility of truth, and compares his filmmaking approach to abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock.
To begin, how did you come to direct this documentary and collaborate with Alexei Navalny?
Documentary filmmaking is often the art of being in the right place at the right time, and this film specifically embodies that. Here’s a film that should never have been made. I had no specific experience that would make me an obvious candidate to make this film, except that I was in the right place at the right time, and sitting next to the right man – Christo Grozev.
One day he turned to me and said, “I’ve been working on the Navalny case. I think I have a lead into who tried to poison him.” My jaw hit the floor, and a week later we were driving across Germany to try to convince Navalny why a film project would be a good idea, and why we’d be the right people to make that film.
The collaboration with Navalny is an invitation into his world. I’d imagine it’s an act of compromise between those moments you want to document and showing respect for his privacy?
Making a documentary film is an extraordinary challenge and it’s a dance that involves technology and cinematography, luck and instinct. […] The way Jackson Pollock throws paint on a canvas with a reckless abandon, that’s how I film. I point the camera at things and go off of instinct.
When you’re working with someone like Navalny, you try to be there for as much as you can. I was working with a subject who was extraordinarily generous, kind, and a good sport. If I asked of him something that I wanted to film, he’d do it.
With very modest means, we were able to craft this film and that’s largely because of how lucky we got. The things we were able to capture, I never could have conceived of. It’s just luck and instinct, being in the right place at the right time, and having dogged intuitiveness that all filmmakers have to have.
While the documentary’s focus is on Russia, it reminds western audiences of how fragile their democracies are. Western nations are attempting to hold the Kremlin to account, but here in the UK, we’re struggling or unwilling to electorally hold Prime Minister Boris Johnson to account, while in France there is the rise of Marine Le Pen, and in the US the Trump presidency. We’d be foolish to forget that democracy is vulnerable and it must be defended and fought for.
Alexei at the end of the film looks into the camera and says in Russian, “Evil is only able to proliferate if good people do nothing, so don’t be inactive.” He’s speaking in the context of the Russian people, but that message is coherent and vital all around the world. Trump in America, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, the rise of Marine Le Pen, Boris Johnson and his ineptitude – it’s a type of populism. It’s an important message for the entire world as we are navigating the 21st Century, where we’re seeing the rise of authoritarianism continue to emerge and proliferate.
Western liberals like to think that these types of strongmen were made in the mould of the 20th Century, but what we’re seeing is that they are thriving and existing in the 21st Century. Good people around the world with a conscience have a decision to make. Do we want to embolden and capitulate to them? Do we want to be Neville Chamberlain, or do we want to be Winston Churchill? In the world of 2022, people have to ask themselves the question: Do you want to be a Putin, or do you want to be a Volodymyr Zelenskyy? Do you want to be a Putin, or do you want to be a Navalny?
Alexei Navalny casts himself on the side of light, but he’s a politician and he wants to be the president of Russia, so scrutiny of him must be demanded. One cannot help but support and feel inspiration from his bravery and the righteousness of his cause, because it really is black and white.
I hope the film resonates and strikes a chord with people all over the world who are living in situations where the rise of authoritarianism is simmering.
Navalny, in response to flirting with the extreme right early in his political career, shows a commitment to the principles of an open and inclusive democracy. For some, this revelation will tarnish him, while others will see a man that understands the compromises needed to uphold democratic values that still challenge democratic societies.
It’s important to remember the context that Navalny exists in is Russian politics, which is complex, nebulous, mysterious, and unapproachable at the best of times. Alexei is trying his best to build what he describes as a broad-based coalition to defeat this regime, and he’s willing to meet and engage with unsavoury characters to do it, in a way that makes a lot of westerners uncomfortable, including me. It’s a political calculation that Alexei understands, being a master student of Russian politics.
I hope the film reminds people that Putin is not Russia, and Russia is not Putin. What I hope the film offers is an alternate vision of what Russia can be, and that’s especially important and relevant now in the context of this brutal war in Ukraine, where the regime is murdering children every single day.
It’s my hope that this film reminds audiences that there are good Russians, there are Russians that are brave and there are Russians that are not willing to live in a nation where the government murders people for their opinions, steals everything from the people, and where rule of law is non-existent. The mission of this film is to remind the world of that.
Hearing Christo Grozev talk about trusting data instead of people is a tragic truth, but it addresses the fundamental need to scrutinise our sources of information, to separate the truth from fake news.
We’re living in an age where the truth is fragile, where there’s an industry of fake news and alternative facts. One element of the film that reminds me of the vitality and importance of both cinema and investigative journalism, is the moment of the phone call when Navalny decides to phone up the men on the poison squad who were assigned to kill him.
Capturing that moment was vital. It’s one thing for the Russian people to read this report and to understand on paper what was going on, but to hear someone who was actually on the ground, who was part of the team that tried to kill Navalny, explain in great detail the plan, well that was unbelievable to see. I’m so glad that scene is resonating with audiences because it was jaw-dropping to film.
In hindsight, and thinking specifically of the war in Ukraine, would Navalny have been tactically better placed outside of Russia instead of returning home in January 2021?
It’s a great question, and what it speaks to is the power of the political prisoner. Alexei’s calculus is that he’s more valuable as a political prisoner inside of Russia than he is a free man in exile, in Vilnius, Vienna, or, Berlin. Whether that’s the right decision I don’t know.
The decision to go back took extraordinary personal courage, and that’s a decision Alexei Navalny had to make. It was between him and his higher power. What I can tell you, and remind you of is that Navalny is being extraordinarily productive while locked up in prison. He has built this organisation that continues to operate and function and does extraordinary work. They’re the largest anti-war voice.
Alexei Navalny has been critical of this war and outspoken via Twitter and his lawyers. He’s able to get messages out. So no, I believe – although it might seem counterintuitive that he matters more being locked up in Russia than he would be if free in western Europe – he wants to be the moral leader of his nation. Being a moral leader means being in Russia and leading by example.
Has the process of directing Navalny changed you?
It’s completely expansive and making this film, I was pushed out of my comfort zone as a filmmaker and as a human being, and my time with Navalny has inspired me politically. One thing we bonded over was my own political aspirations.
Alexei and I would talk about politics a lot. I want to run for office in Canada one day and that’s something that resonates with him. What I understand now, what Alexei taught me, is the necessity of conversation and dialogue even when you’re talking to someone you’re supposed to hate, or not like.
Dialogue and creating an understanding are critical. It’s something that’s threaded into the DNA of Navalny’s political worldview.
Now in this very polarised world, where people exist in media echo chambers and they only receive news and information from certain sources that support their predetermined conclusions, or opinions, dialogue is critical and healthy.
Navalny premiered on 24 April in the US on CNN and will stream on CNN+. It will premier on HBO Max on 26 May. In the UK it was released theatrically by Dogwoof and is available via On Demand platforms, including the BBC iPlayer.