Dir.: Daniel Roher; Documentary with Alexei Navalny, Yulia Navalnaya, Dasha Navalny, Zakhar Navalny; USA 2022, 98 min.
When Canadian documentary filmmaker Daniel Roher met Bulgarian investigative journalist Christo Grozev, they had different agendas in mind. But the poisoning of Alexei Navalny (*1976) on 20.8.2020 in the Xander Hotel in Tomsk, changed everything. Suddenly Roher was sitting opposite Navalny to discuss a film that could be his epitaph. And it may still be for the dissident politician who is currently languishing in a Russian penal colony on bogus charges.
Navalny had led two different political organisations – “Russia of the Future” and the “Progress Party” – and neither were permitted to run in the 2018 Presidential Elections on account of “Corruption charges” as well as accusations of “Embezzlement”, according to Putin-controlled jurisdiction.
But Putin and the FSB (a new name for the old KGB) were not finished with Navalny. Agents of the FSB poisoned his boxer shorts with the nerve agent novichok (known as LP9 Love potion No. 9 in the FSB handbook). On the flight from Omsk to Moscow Navalny suffered convulsions. His life was saved by an emergency landing in Omsk where he was treated in hospital where Roher and his crew met the dissident and his wife Yulia. They declined to be photographed preferring to maintain the image of a strong and healthy politician in the public imagination. A few days later Novalny was flown to Berlin for further treatment, where the novichok diagnosis was confirmed. The recovering Navalny could only laugh about the attack: “How stupid, they can’t be so stupid”. But they were.
At home in his Black Forest retreat Alexei, his family and the film team discovered, with the help of hackers, the names of the four FSB operatives involved in the assassination attempt. In late December, Navalny put a call through to them, impersonating a leading officer of the FSB, wanting to discuss “what went wrong” during the ‘operation’. The first three agents declined to talk to Alexei, one even pointing out he knew the real identity of the caller. But the forth member, Konstantin Kudryavstev, was only too willing to talk, and confessed that without the emergency landing in Omsk, the victim would have died. A few hours more in the air, without help and the antidote “would have done the trick” according to Kudryavstev. “He is dead, the poor man is dead”, exclaimed Alexei after the end of their phone conversation.
On January 17th 2021, Navalny was back in Moscow. At Vnukovo airport, huge crowds gathered to welcome back their hero and his family. The authorities quickly diverted the plane to Sheremetyevo, and even though supporters crowded round the disembarking politician, the authorities prevailed and Alexei was arrested on arrival.
His original punishment for the alleged embezzlement and contempt of court was two years and eight months. But since then Putin’s regime has come up with a nine-year sentence, to be served in a maximum security prison. All the organisations Alexei belonged to have now been declared “extremist” and are therefore illegal. Despite all this, Navalny started a hunger strike, only ending when he was on death’s door. After the start of the Ukraine invasion by Russia, he sent out messages from the penal colony, condemning the war.
DoP Niki Walti uses his often handheld camera to great effect, particularly in the scenes when Alexei engages with the corrupt FSB agents. Perhaps, Roher could have forced Navalny more on the extreme nationalist part of his coalition. But overall his film is a coup extraordinaire: the audience bearing witness to living history: to a man’s courage, and the cowardliness of the murderous organisation known as the FSB. Echoes are already sounding in Ukraine on a daily basis. A remarkable document and a worthy winner at the year’s Academy Awards 2023 . AS
NAVALNY WON THE 2023 OSCAR FOR BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE