Daniel Roher’s documentary Navalny starts with a bit of a joke. Roher, interviewing the Russian politician, would-be president, survivor of a gruesome poisoning, and (as I write) prisoner in a Russian jail, asks him how he’d like to be remembered by the Russian people if he is assassinated. Navalny laughs in an affable “guys, do me a favour” kind of way while pointing out to Roher that this film he’s in the process of making can go one of two ways. It can either be a thriller (he survives) or a “boring memoir” (he is killed).
Roher then cuts to a very 007-style shot, of a wintry mountain, from high over the trees, the sun glinting on the snow while rhythmic strings saw away. Thriller it is then.
It is quite a ride, following Navalny from before the poisoning in Novosibirsk in August 2020 to his recuperation and then his return to Russia in January 2021, at which point he was arrested, put on trial and jailed.
Handily for Roher, he’s got more than the facts to work with. Navalny is a good interviewee, smart, erudite, often amusing. He’s obviously brave too, since anyone who openly takes on Vladmir Putin is reducing their life expectancy massively. That said, Navalny hadn’t been expecting an attempt on his life. He believed his high profile, his celebrity, would protect him. Relentless harassment, yes. But an assassination attempt, no. And certainly not with Novichock, a deadly nerve agent so associated with Putin that he might as well have left a note behind saying “I did this”.
Roher sketches in some background, though if you don’t know who Navalny is, this is not the place to find out. We see rallies down the years, at which he essentially accuses Vladimir Putin of being a gangster responsible for running a kleptocracy. Again and again the word “corruption” is used.
For those worried about a whitewash, Roher tackles Navalny on his links to right-wing nationalism. Navalny plausibly explains that in an attempt to build the broadest possible coalition in Russia he’s willing to talk to all sorts of people, even those whose views he doesn’t agree with. We know Navalny wants to get Putin out and clean the stables, but beyond that his actual political views remain unexplored.
Christo Grozev, a journalist from Bellingcat, the investigative organisation boldly going where most news agencies won’t, turns out to be a key figure in the film. It’s Grozev who finds out, by 21st-century shoe-leather grubbing in data bought on the black market, the identities of the men who actually poisoned Navalny. A “domestic assassination machine on an industrial scale,” he calls it.
In the film’s standout sequence, Navalny himself phones up the men, one by one. One by one they hang up on him, all except one, who stupidly buys Navalny’s claims to be a colleague writing a report on the poisoning – and he sings like a bird, while Grozev, in the room with Navalny, alternates between air-punching and clasping his head in “I cannot believe what I’m hearing” poses.
Navalny would have died if the plane he was on when he took ill hadn’t been diverted to Omsk, from where, after being stonewalled by the authorities, he was eventually released and evacuated on an air ambulance to Berlin. Roher catches it all in what is clearly a documentary that’s been years in the making. Navalny’s misfortune is the making of a film that would have been fascinating even without it.
Remarkably, after a long, slow recovery, Navalny went straight back to Russia, where he knew that things could not go well for him. The film’s last 20 minutes detail this return flight. How he’s applauded as he climbs on board the plane. How supporters back in Russia start assembling around Moscow airport to welcome him back. How the plane is diverted, Navalny apologising to the passengers for having caused this delay. And how he’s taken off and arrested.
Two days later Navalny released his film Putin’s Palace: History of the World’s Largest Bribe, a YouTube film (Navalny is a great user of social media) detailing the vastly extravagant palace Putin has built for himself on the Black Sea (Putin claims it’s not his). The film got 20 million views on its first day online. Putin’s problems clearly extend further than a man whose name he refuses to utter in public, preferring “this man” or “this individual”. As if he was scared or something.
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