Toronto director of Oscar-nominated doc 'Navalny' on the sheer urgency of his film
TORONTO — Daniel Roher, director of the Oscar-nominated documentary about imprisoned Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, says that he’s far more interested in keeping Navalny breathing than he is in promoting his film.
“This is an extraordinarily bittersweet moment," says the Toronto-born filmmaker, adding that the success of the film is overshadowed by the more grim 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, perilous place — this isn't just a promotion of a film or an awards campaign, it’s a vital mission to keep this guy, who for millions of Russians is a flickering light 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 over 6 million subscribers, that accuse the Kremlin of corruption.
Navalny was arrested in Russia in January 2021 after returning from Germany where he had been recuperating from nerve-agent poisoning in August 2020,an attack he blames on the Kremlin. He was subsequently handed a2 1/2-year sentence — which in March 2022 was extended to nine years — for a parole violation from a 2014 embezzlement case that Navalny has claimed was politically motivated.
“Nalvany,” which won the BAFTA for best documentary last month and is available to stream on Crave,is both a look into Navalny’s attempts to uncover the offenders who poisoned him and also a plea to his supporters to apply pressure on the Kremlin in the event of his prolonged imprisonment.
Roher and journalist Christo Grozev of the digital investigative website Bellingcat worked to uncover details of the nerve agent attack, including the individuals who carried it out.
In one of the film’s more memorable sequences, Navalny prank calls one of his potential 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 team routinely had access to the leader at his hideout located in a remote countryside in Germany and were present during the most shocking moments of the investigation into his poisoning.
“I don’t frame myself as a journalist, I’m only interested in the currency of cinema, but by challenging my subject about his nationalist past for example, it’s why I was able to ask him whatever I wanted, allowing the film to be more valuable and interesting.”
He says that Navalny's rationale for aligning himself alongside ultranationalists in opposition to Vladimir Putin’s regime, for example, was difficult for him to get behind.
"His political philosophy is that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and I found that his rationale could be simultaneously very uncomfortable for me," says Rohner. "But I can understand that creating a democracy out of authoritarianism is a tricky business."
The film competes at the Academy Awards on Sunday for best documentary. It's up against U.S. opioid saga “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” Delhi-set bird conservation tale “All That Breathes,” Ukraine-set orphanage portrait “A House Made of Splinters” and the Canada-U.S. co-production “Fire of Love,” about the lives and careers of volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft.
While the doc has been receiving international success,Roher says it’s been nine months since he’s received a message from the jailed activist.
“He’s in the most danger he’s been in since the very beginning of his prison sentence and he’s the only prisoner in the Russian penal system who is in perpetual solitary confinement,” says Roher.
“The reason for this is because he’s become the loudest antiwar advocate in the country. He is denouncing Russia's war in Ukraine and he is crying out against the murderous crooks and thieves that are perpetuating this brutal invasion.”
For Roher, the current circumstances make “Navalny” and the film's message pressing, with every additional award becoming an act of crucial exposure.
In addition to winning a BAFTA, the CNN films production also recently won the documentary audience and the festival favourite awardsat the Sundance Film Festivaland the outstanding producer of documentary motion picture award at the Producers Guild of America ceremony.
In response to outside threats made in relation to thefilm’s subject matter, Roher says the BAFTAs were encouraged by the British police to disinvite Grozev and his family from the awards in London due to a “public security risk."
“To disinvite an independent journalist who risked their lives to expose war crimes and murder of the Putin regime gives Putin, in a way, a moral victory,” says Roher who adds that Grozev willbe attending the Oscars.
“I think it’s incredibly damaging and the BAFTAs should really evaluate their policies, and instead of banning journalists, they should reconcile the need for public security.”
In a statement, BAFTAs communications manager Catie Poust said they don’t discuss matters related to guest lists other than to confirm the names of the nominees and presenters in attendance.
But in matters of security, she said, “the safety of all our guests and staff at the ceremony is always our highest priority and we have robust and appropriate security arrangements in place every year.”
For Roher, it’s a moment that made Navalny's predicament all the more clear.
“In the context of what work 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 themselves for democracy and the future of his nation and children,” adds Roher. “When you have that moral starkness, that clear binary choice — to not be on his team is in itself a moral injury.”
Roher says that Navalny’s family is incredibly proud of the film and that his daughter Yulia Navalnaya rewatches the documentary at screening events to view her father before his current withered and beaten up state.
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'll be able to travel to Moscow for the first time, rent a cinema and show him our film.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Mar. 8, 2023.
Noel Ransome, The Canadian Press