Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | April 24th, 2022
Navalny (Daniel Roher, 2022) 4 out of 4 stars.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Russian leader Vladimir Putin is a murderous psychopath and vile dictator. A former KGB man (albeit but a minor player when he was in the service), he came to power at the end of a decade of misery for the once-proud citizens of the Soviet Union, a country which dissolved itself in 1991. More or less appointed by Boris Yeltsin, the man he succeeded, Putin has held onto power through increasing control of government and media and a solid understanding that most Russians would choose security over freedom, so traumatic were the 1990s.
But maybe not everyone would so choose. There have been opposition politicians in the past, many of them now disappeared, murdered or exiled, and there certainly is one now: Alexei Navalny. At present, this man is in prison, having returned to his homeland in 2021 following a lengthy, post-assassination-attempt recovery in Germany. Poisoned in 2020 by, no doubt, minions of Putin, he nevertheless made the decision to face whatever horrors awaited him and went back. Was he naïve, hopeful, merely stoic, or more? It’s not quite clear, but one thing is certain: he is a brave and capable thorn in Putin’s side, and perhaps someone who could bring his country out of its current nightmare.
We learn a lot about Navalny in Navalny, a thrilling new documentary from director Daniel Roher (Once Were Brothers). With a principal interview with its subject filmed during his German convalescence, supplemented by ample other footage with family and colleagues from the same period, along with archival material and snippets from Navalny’s own YouTube channel, the movie crafts a sharp, three-dimensional portrait of a wily, irreverent soul who, if he does not perish in his current circumstances, could make a positive difference in this world. No wonder, then, that the current denizen of the Kremlin wants him out of the way.
The trick is how to do so without turning Navalny into a martyr. For he has a sizeable following (which also worries Putin), as witnessed by the masses thronging the Moscow airport ahead of his return. By then, we, too, understand his appeal. If we look at the violence unfolding in Ukraine right now, we can only hope that Navalny survives and that his plans for a pluralistic, democratic nation eventually come to pass.
Central to the documentary’s structure, and the way it reveals all the facts about Navalny, is the search for the poisoners and the fascinating spycraft surrounding that quest. Working closely with Bulgarian journalist Christo Grozev, lead Russia investigator for the website Bellingcat, Navalny tracks down those who exposed him to the deadly nerve agent Novichok. Grozev is a marvel, able to take a hint here and a description there and uncover plots and conspiracies. We watch in awe as together they record a phone conversation with a chemist who was part of the team tasked with eliminating Navalny. Clever they are, but is that enough to topple a regime?
Roher does not shy away from tough questions as he probe’s Navalny’s political beliefs, asking, among other things, why he does not turn his back on far-right supporters. Without any apology, Navalny states clearly that these folks are Russians, too, and he needs to hear them, even if he disagrees with their ideology. One can like or not like that approach, but at least it’s honest.
Which makes the ending all that more bleak. After a little over 90 minutes in the company of Navalny, his wife Yulia, his children, staff members Leonid Volkov and Maria Pevchikh, and many others, it’s gut-wrenching to see him be detained at Sheremetyevo airport, despite the cameras and crowds, and vanish into some kind of detention. Is it the end? Of the movie, yes, but hopefully neither for Navalny nor the Russian opposition. Ни пуха, ни пера, Алекей!*
*Good luck, Alexei!