Navalny

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jeremy Mathews

Navalny
"And so we get a very engaging, often suspenseful movie in Navalny, a record of the dangers that come with pissing off an authoritarian regime." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Those who only have a passing familiarity with Alexei Navalny may be surprised by how charming and funny he is. Of course, politicians must have charisma to lead a movement, but when the news out of Russia is all about the suppression of opposition to Vladimir Putin, it’s reasonable to expect a sombre tone in a documentary about his most vocal critic. But in the first scene of Daniel Roher’s documentary about him, Navalny tells the director that his movie should be a thriller — save the sombreness for a second movie after he’s actually killed.

And so we get a very engaging, often suspenseful movie in Navalny, a record of the dangers that come with pissing off an authoritarian regime. There will probably be a lot of familiar territory for those who have been following the man for a while, although there’s also plenty of alluring, new behind-the-scenes footage. But novices will catch up fast thanks to a quick rundown of the lawyer-turned-activist’s work, from his savvy use of social media to his past controversial alliances with nationalists and white supremacists. That said, the filmmakers’ goal is not to build a full biography, but to depict his struggle to take on a government that would very much like him to die.

It really comes across that Navalny’s rise wasn’t just due to his willingness to expose government corruption, but his ability to do so in a fun, engaging matter. This is a man who records a TikTok lip-sync to go along with bombshell breaking news. It’s impressive to realise that he’s made a collection of investigative YouTube videos highlighting different aspects of high-level corruption within the government.

Navalny entered the Sundance Film Festival with a splash, having been kept a secret and not announced as part of the US Documentary competition until a few days into the festival, in order to keep the production off the radar. The last film to screen, it soon became a crowd-pleasing hit for the all-online event, winning not only the US Documentary Audience Award but the Festival Favorite Award — the audience-voted award that spans all the categories.

Shooting started in August 2020, while Navalny was in Germany recovering from a poisoning attempt with the nerve-agent Novichok — a method that was so stereotypically Putin that, Navalny’s friend tells us, it pissed off the victim for being unbelievably obvious. The filmmakers don’t have any problems filling in the pieces before the poisoning, because Navalny always at least has phone cameras pointed at him. (The footage of him boarding his plane back to Russia has a sea of phone and camera LCD screens.)

The most compelling person in Navalny’s circle is Christo Grozev, an investigative reporter for Bellingcat who cleverly uncovered the network of Russian agents who poisoned Navalny by tracing their movements. He confides that he spends way more than his wife thinks making these investigations successful, but is not worried when Roher asks the ultimate follow-up: What about when she sees this movie? He teams up with Navalny, Der Spiegel and CNN to publish a report exposing the plot.

With the team’s chain of command up on the wall, Navalny keeps saying that it looks like it’s out of a movie, but it’s a real plot. Then, he pulls the ultimate move and prank calls the people who tried to kill him. In the most talked about scene in the movie, part of which was released online a year ago, Navalny phones a chemist who worked on the assassination attempt and pretends to to be an investigator from Russia’s security council, writing a report on why they failed. It’s a great tightrope walk of a scene, as Navalny delicately navigates the call while the room silently goes nuts.

For Roher’s part as director, he sometimes seems to feel pressure to remind everyone this is a Historically Significant Documentary. He loads the film with epic music and undertones even when his subject is taking on the things with a matter-of-fact casualness. But Roher makes up for those indulgences with his skills as an interviewer. He’s pretty sharp at asking follow-up questions and allowing his subjects' feelings and personal character to shine through, while resisting the impulse to hero-worship. He also includes Navalny’s skepticism about the project, both in English during the interview, and thanks to a camera that keeps running during a break in his interview, in Russian to his aid. Navalny says Roher is only filming so he can release a prestige picture after his subject gets whacked.

In real life, Navalny’s story is not over. Russia declared him a terrorist and put him in prison when he stubbornly returned. But this documentary ably captures one of the most significant chapters of Navalny’s saga, while leaving the door open for activism. Here’s hoping that if there’s a second documentary, it’s not for the reason Navalny thinks.

Reviewed on: 05 Feb 2022
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Profile of the Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny in the wake of survival of an assassination attempt.

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