Daniel Roher, director of the Oscar-nominated documentary about imprisoned Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, says he is far more interested in giving Navalny breathing space than promoting his film.
“It’s an extraordinarily bittersweet moment,” says the Toronto filmmaker, adding that the film’s success is overshadowed by the darker reality of its subject being held in solitary confinement in a gulag.
“He hasn’t seen his family in a year and a half and he’s in a very dangerous and perilous place – this isn’t just promoting a film or an awards campaign, this is a vital mission for keep this guy, who for millions of Russians is a flickering beacon of hope for the future of Russian democracy, alive.
The opposition leader has been vocal for years in his criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin, posting videos on his YouTube channel, which currently has more than 6 million subscribers, that accuse the Kremlin of corruption.
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Navalny was arrested in Russia in January 2021 after returning from Germany where he had recovered from nerve agent poisoning in August 2020, an attack he blames on the Kremlin. He was later given a 2.5-year sentence – which in March 2022 was extended to nine years – for a parole violation in a 2014 embezzlement case that Navalny said was politically motivated.
‘Nalvany’, which won the BAFTA for best documentary last month and is available to stream on Crave, is both a look at Navalny’s attempts to uncover the offenders who poisoned him and also a plea to his followers. for them to put pressure on the Kremlin in the event of his prolonged incarceration.
Roher and journalist Christo Grozev of digital forensics website Bellingcat worked to uncover details of the nerve agent attack, including the people who carried it out.
In one of the film’s most memorable sequences, Navalny’s prank calls one of his would-be assailants directly, posing as an angry superior before being told the details of the assassination attempt.
Roher says there was nothing off-limits with Navalny when he met him before his imprisonment. His film crew had regular access to the chef in his hideout in remote rural Germany and were present during the most shocking moments of the investigation into his poisoning.
“I don’t pose as a journalist, I’m only interested in the currency of cinema, but by challenging my subject on his nationalist past for example, that’s why I was able to ask him what I wanted , allowing the film to be more valuable and interesting.
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He says Navalny’s logic of aligning himself with ultranationalists opposed to Vladimir Putin’s regime, for example, has been difficult for him to follow.
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“His political philosophy is that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and I found his reasoning to be very uncomfortable for me at the same time,” Rohner says. “But I can understand that creating a democracy out of authoritarianism is a tricky business.”
The film is in competition Sunday at the Oscars for best documentary. It’s against the American opioid saga “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed”, the Delhi bird conservation tale “All That Breathes”, the portrait of the Ukrainian orphanage “A House Made of Splinters” and the Canadian co-production -American “Fire of Love”, on the life and career of volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft.
As the doc finds international success, Roher says it has been nine months since he received a message from the imprisoned activist.
“He is most in danger from the very beginning of his prison term and he is the only prisoner in the Russian penal system who is in perpetual solitary confinement,” Roher said.
“The reason is that he has become the most vocal anti-war advocate in the country. He denounces Russia’s war in Ukraine and he cries out against the crooks and murderous thieves who perpetuate this brutal invasion.
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For Roher, the current circumstances make “Navalny” and the film’s message pressing, with each additional award becoming a crucial act of exposition.
In addition to winning a BAFTA, CNN’s film production also recently won the Documentary Audience Award and Festival Favorite Award at the Sundance Film Festival and the Outstanding Documentary Film Producer Award at the ceremony of the Producers Guild of America.
In response to outside threats made in relation to the film’s subject matter, Roher says the BAFTAs were encouraged by British police to disinvite Grozev and his family from the awards in London due to a “risk to public safety”.
“Disinviting a freelance journalist who risked his life to expose the Putin regime’s war crimes and murder gives Putin, in a way, a moral victory,” says Roher, who adds that Grozev will be attending the Oscars.
“I think that’s incredibly damaging and the BAFTAs should really evaluate their policies, and instead of banning journalists, they should balance the need for public safety.”
In a statement, BAFTA communications manager Catie Poust said they were not discussing guest list issues except to confirm the names of nominees and presenters in attendance.
But when it comes to security, she said, “the safety of all of our guests and staff at the ceremony is always our top priority and we have implemented strong and appropriate security arrangements each year.”
For Roher, it was a moment that made Navalny’s predicament all the more clear.
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“In the context of what I was doing, it’s black and white, because we have a supervillain who is destroying the planet and we have someone who is sacrificing himself for democracy and the future of his nation and his his children,” adds Roher. “When you have that moral rigor, that clear binary choice – not being on his team is in itself a moral wound.”
Roher says Navalny’s family is incredibly proud of the film and his daughter Yulia Navalnaya is watching the documentary again at screenings to see her father before his current state of withering and beatings.
He hopes to one day show the film to Navalny himself.
“I just have to rely on the hope that Navalny will survive his ordeal,” says Roher. “He will be free, Russia will turn a corner and I will be able to go to Moscow for the first time, rent a cinema and show him our film.”
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