‘Navalny’ director blames Putin for opposition leader’s ‘murder’

There’s a striking moment in the documentary “Navalny” in which Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Putin’s greatest political adversary, makes a prank call to a Russian Federal Security Service agent who essentially admits to being part of a plot to poison the opposition leader. It was the answer Navalny had been seeking.

In 2020, Navalny suddenly became ill on a plane from Siberia to Moscow. The flight was diverted; doctors in Omsk put him in a coma; and under international pressure he was moved from Russia to Germany, where officials concluded he’d been poisoned by a banned, deadly nerve agent associated with past attacks on enemies of the Kremlin. (“Putin’s signature poison,” Navalny’s chief of staff, Leonid Volkov, calls it in the documentary.) As he recovered — and with a camera crew in tow — Navalny and a team of journalists found a group of Russian operatives they believed had been tracking Navalny ever since he’d taken on the government of Vladimir Putin by announcing plans to run for president in 2017.

In the film, which won the 2023 Oscar for best documentary, Navalny calls the suspected kill team one by one, posing as a top Russian security official. Most hang up. Finally, one believes his ruse and reveals how they did it: applying a lethal dose of the nerve agent to underwear Navalny had sent out through hotel laundry. As he puts down the phone, Navalny expresses empathy for the man: “They’re going to kill him. They’re going to kill him.”

End of carousel

According to the documentary, that agent has been missing ever since that phone call. As the film ends, Navalny himself returns to Russia, placing his fate in the hands of the government he’d shown had tried to kill him.

On Friday, Russia’s prison service announced that Navalny had died at 47 while in custody at a prison colony in the Arctic Circle. And a film that felt at once hopeful and foreboding now takes on a dreadful prescience.

“It’s the most obvious story: Of course they murdered him,” said Daniel Roher, the director of “Navalny,” speaking with The Washington Post Friday evening. “The fashion in which they did it is so brazen and so overt. It is almost as if they had rented out a billboard to say to anyone else who thinks about being in the opposition, ‘This is what’s going to happen to you.’”

Allies of Navalny had repeatedly warned officials that his health was deteriorating, but he had appeared in court by video the day before his death in good spirits. “He was jovial and he was sarcastic and being his typical s— stirring self, making the prison guards laugh,” said Roher. “The day before, he wrote a beautiful message on Instagram for Yulia [Navalnaya, his wife] for Valentine’s Day. The man’s humanity was clearly intact. His health was vital … So for him to just drop dead, seemingly overnight, the culprit is Putin. That is clear. The technical point of how they did it and who did it, we will know that in time. But today I’m just mourning.” (In announcing his death, Russian officials said Navalny had mysteriously lost consciousness after taking a walk. Navalny’s family is demanding thereturn of his body; Russia says it is doing a medical examination and has not determined cause of death.)

Navalny, a lawyer and pro-democracy advocate, sought to challenge Putin in Russia’s 2018 presidential election but was barred from the ballot. At a rally shown in the film, he said his campaign had amassed 182,000 volunteers, more than any candidate in Russian history. Ignored by state television stations, he ran a shadow campaign on YouTube and TikTok, where his videos got tens of millions of views.

By the time Roher met Navalny in Germany in late 2020, he was recovering and invigorated by his investigation into his poisoning. In another stunning moment in the film (available on HBO Max, Prime Video and Apple TV Plus), Navalny walks away from the camera, visibly agitated by a line of questioning from Roher. His press agent asks what’s wrong and Navalny replies in Russian, “I realize that he’s filming it all for the movie he’s going to release if I get whacked.”

The film ends with Navalny returning to Russia, knowing he’ll be arrested and likely jailed for decades. We see his last goodbye to his daughter Dasha, now 23, and teenage son Zakhar. We see him make a heart with his hands to his wife Yulia through a glass wall at a court appearance. We see the massive protests that occurred in Russia upon his arrest.

Navalny’s family was onstage at the 2023 Oscars, where Yulia spoke to her husband through the camera: “Alexei, I am dreaming of the day when you will be free and our country will be free. Stay strong my love.” But his allies were once again thrown into panic in December when Navalny went missing as Putin launched an essentially unopposed campaign for a fifth term as president. After a desperate three weeks, Navalny was found at an isolated prison colony in the Arctic Circle. His death comes a month before the Russian election. Yulia immediately blamed Putin for his death, and, through tears, called for people around the world “to defeat this evil. Defeat this horrible regime in Russia.”

Roher learned of his friend’s death at 4 a.m. Friday while at home in Los Angeles. When his wife, the filmmaker Caroline Lindy, woke him up, he thought it was to take care of their three-week-old baby. “I am surprised at how shocked I was,” he said. “A lot of people who know the Navalny story or who have seen the film might think about the likelihood of this tragedy and … in spite of that, I was shocked and I remain quite shocked and trying to process that which I don’t know can be processed.”

Not trusting the Russian announcement, Roher made a call to Christo Grozev, the Bulgarian journalist who spearheaded the investigation into Navalny’s poisoning in the film. “He picked up the phone and I just said, ‘Is it true?’” said Roher. “And he said, ‘It is.’ And when Christo said that, I was sure.”

Roher, a 31-year-old Canadian whose previous documentary was about The Band, knew no Russian when the opportunity to make “Navalny” virtually fell in his lap. He’d been working on a project in Ukraine that wasn’t going well when Grozev, one of his sources, told Roher that he was digging into Navalny’s poisoning. They approached Navalny in Germany with the idea of filming him until his return to Russia, pitching the film as “a weapon on time delay” that could keep his name in the news. They started shooting the next day.

Over an intense two months, Roher and Navalny became as friendly as documentarian and subject can be. We see Navalny feeding burros and juggling tennis balls in Germany and making a TikTok in front of an elaborate investigation board, complete with photos of suspects and red string, as the opposition leader mouths the words to OMC’s “How Bizarre.” Navalny sent Roher a nice letter after the Oscar win. Dasha and Yulia “tore up the dance floor at our wedding,” Roher said, which took place just a few weeks after the Oscars, and Dasha came over to his house just six weeks ago for dinner.

“I have a little bit of regret peppered into this anecdote,” said Roher, recalling that dinner. “But we were talking about school and her dad and things like that and [Dasha] said to me, ‘Why haven’t you written to him in a while?’ And I sort of confided that it’s a little bit uncomfortable for me to write to Alexei. What do I say? Since I said goodbye to him on January 17, 2021, his life has contracted. He’s been in gulags … He’s been psychologically tortured. And meanwhile, my life has just expanded [with the Oscar, his marriage and the baby], and the guilt and dichotomy of that was challenging for me.”

Roher asked Dasha what he could tell her father — that his life was perfect? She replied, “Yeah, dummy,” that’s exactly what Navalny would have wanted to hear. Roher immediately wrote out a long letter that he gave to Dasha to translate.

Part of what Roher wanted to express in that letter was gratitude. He’d met his wife while promoting the film, so in a way he owes their son’s life to Navalny. “So many beautiful miracles have manifested as a result of meeting Alexei and working with him in making this movie, and that’s not lost on me today as I’m grieving this guy who I care deeply about, my friend,” Roher said. “In the back of my mind, I had this idea that, ‘No, of course, he’s going to survive this; of course, he’s going to get out of prison; of course, he’s going to galvanize the Russian opposition. And he’s going to run in the first free and fair election and become the president and I’m going to make a sequel to the movie and I’m going to get to go to Russia and I’m going to see him again. And then I’m confronted with the bitter reality of today.”

As inevitable as Navalny’s death may now seem, he tried to avoid the subject during filming. Navalny jokes on-screen that the whole point of building up a giant online media following was to be so famous Putin couldn’t off him. And Roher remembers the discomfort he had in asking Navalny to give a message to the Russian people if he died.

He did, though, and the result is the ending of the film, which has been circulating online like a prophecy.

“Listen, I’ve got something very obvious to tell you. You’re not allowed to give up. If they decide to kill me it means that we are incredibly strong,” Navalny says, animated to be speaking in Russian, as if standing on a rally stage in Moscow once more. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. So don’t be inactive.”

SOURCE

Leave a Comment