It’s widely believed that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a murderous thug, a modern-day dictator who leaves no stone unturned to eliminate dissenters and rule with fear. But it’s one thing to believe this from afar and another altogether to prove the same: his authority is so absolute that any concrete evidence of his crimes rarely makes it past a fresh grave. Not to mention the flimsiness of the Western narrative, which paints him as little more than a cartoonish Bond villain. Thankfully, we live in an age where film-making is more democratic than any nation can be. After American documentarian Bryan Fogel’s award-winning Icarus – which provided a whistleblower account of Russia’s state-sponsored doping program and the sinister motions of its government – it’s Canadian Daniel Roher’s Navalny that confirms Putin’s cold credentials with irrefutable proof.
The subject of the documentary is Alexei Navalny – the 43-year-old Putin critic, anti-corruption activist and opposition leader – and his brave investigations into a lethal attack on his own life. Roher follows Navalny and his team in the months following the 2020 attack while he is recovering in rural Germany and orchestrating a comeback of sorts. In other words, lawyer by trade Alexei Navalny doesn’t just cry foul about Putin trying to kill him; he certifies it. The documentary is so meticulously crafted and damning in its revelations that it becomes a rare title that speaks to real-world reverberations. On the day of its premiere at Sundance 2022, Russia added an imprisoned Navalny to their “terrorist list” in an effort to pre-empt the broadcast of their movie-level misdeeds. But the live politics – of the United States denouncing the act and calling for his immediate release – should not distract from the fact that Navalny is not just a “timely” selection but a merit-based one. It is potentially a landscape-altering piece of work that transcends film festival fame and stands as a stirring nutshell of humanitarian history.
Navalny begins with a visibly triumphant Alexei preparing to return to Moscow. As the film delves into the circumstances that led him to this moment, we learn more of the charismatic politician, who looks like a very capable lovechild of Matthew Macfayden and Arnie Hammer. The narrative unfurls like an espionage thriller from the eyes of the target – his rise, his nationwide following, his poisoning on a flight to Siberia, his subsequent partnership with data investigation outlet Bellingcat to prove that Novichok – a nerve agent used to kill other popular Putin opponents – was used by the FSB to poison him, and finally, the global implications of his findings. The transparency of his time with Bellingcat CEO Christo Grozev is disarming, revealing a small ecosystem that uses all its resources to swim against the tide in a stormy sea. Alexei’s weaponization of social media – where his millions of online fans finetune a voice against fascism – is both amusing and heartening to see, as is the tech-start-up intimacy of his “control room” in Germany. Roher’s film-making goes hand in glove with the vision of Alexei’s core team, comprising adults who genuinely trust in the archival nature of internet data and therefore go nowhere without a camera in hand. It’s both a habit and a deep-set strategy, one that extends into the cementing of Alexei’s family-man image in a cesspool of Kremlin depravity.
At one point, we see the phones recording Alexei’s wife Yulia being denied permission to meet her hospitalized husband in the aftermath of his poisoning. Despite the fierce privacy of the emotions involved, this is a family that understands the persuasive power of visuals. The camera is not just a narrative device here; it’s a window into the soul of a nation brimming with rage. Early on, for instance, we see Alexei delivering a speech to his young followers in the open. He ends by joking about the police filming this speech – and a boy’s smile in the front morphs into a fleeting expression of worry when he notices the cameras on him. You can sense why – he’s immortalized on a lens for an establishment that doesn’t mind making liberals disappear into thin air. Yet, Alexei’s constant presence on all kinds of screens and mediums act as a trigger for a generation that believes in going viral or going home.
It can be argued that Roher’s view is too impassioned, too one-sided to pass off as a world-class documentary. There is a bit where he questions Alexei about some Nazi allies – and Alexei’s answer, which goes on the lines of “the enemy of an enemy is a friend,” is depressing but alarmingly honest. His words suggest that there is no virtue in being “balanced” and fair anymore. Objectivity is a classic liberal trait in the face of ruthless right-wing badgering, but it is also the refuge of the privileged. It is the one cultural weakness that the wolves of authoritarianism are reared to prey on. In short, objectivity is overrated when the rules are changed by those who can. Alexei’s prank-calling of his killers to trick them into divulging the truth is a testament to this clear-minded philosophy – one cannot fight fire with water anymore. Roher’s documentary walks Alexei Navalny’s talk. This synchronization of subject and sound is preferable to a Gandhian killing with neutral kindness. It is, after all, the age of a new normal. If fascism is the intellectual wing of treason, art can be the aesthetic roof of reason.