Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Sundance ’22: Navalny

Anna Politkovskaya. Boris Nemtsov. Alexander Litvinenko. Alexei Navalny was supposed to join their names on the list of Putin critics who met conveniently early deaths. However, he survived to expose his would-be assassins. In a fitting irony, the Kremlin officially declared him a “terrorist” yesterday, mere hours before Daniel Roher’s documentary Navalny, an up-close chronicle of his recovery and return to Russia, premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Nobody was really surprised when Navalny was arrested returning to his Russian homeland in early 2021, least of Navalny. As viewers can see in the film’s early scenes, Navalny was a master of social media, who built a large and enthusiastic following throughout Russia, especially with younger generations (you can see them in Alexandra Dalsbaek’s doc,
We Are Russia). Odds are he could easily unseat Putin in a legitimately fair election, but that is not how the president-for-life plays the game.

Navalny always knew he was a threat, but he assumed his prominence would protect him. He was wrong, as he readily admits to Roher. In August of the super-fun year of 2020, agents of the FSB (what the KGB is now called) poisoned him with the nerve agent Novichok (dubbed “LP9” by the Russians). We really do know that because of an investigation conducted by Bellingcat journalist Christo Grozev and Maria Pevchikh of Anti-Corruption Foundation (founded by Navalny). Viewers hear from them a lot in the documentary and what they have to say is fascinating. Yet, Navalny himself was able to secure independent verification in a spectacularly dramatic fashion.

Those who have followed Navalny’s case might already know he cold-called one of his attempted-assassins, who basically confirmed everything over the phone. It is an absolutely electric, jaw-dropping scene that has to be seen to be believed. Some of that footage (that was shot by Roher and Niki Waltl, one of three cinematographers on the project) is already in the public sphere, but the full context makes it even more gripping.

Of course, it was uncertain whether Navalny would even live that long. The sequences covering his poisoning are also quite intense and profoundly troubling. It is easy to see how scared the Navalny family was, as they fought the suspiciously obstructionist Novosibirsk hospital for access to Navalny. There is plenty there too that demands to be seen by the world at large. However, Roher does his best to keep the Navalnys’ privates lives private, but it is hard to maintain a hard-and-fast firewall for a subject that was poisoned by Novichok and returns to Russia to face likely (and unjust) incarceration.

Still, this is not hagiography. Roher asks Navalny some tough questions about his past attempts to forge alliances with Russian nationalists. It clearly annoys Navalny to give the same rote answers yet again, but you cannot accuse Roher of ignoring the issue, which in turn bolsters the film’s credibility on the international stage.

Even though everyone should know how the film ends, but it is still an intense and even suspenseful viewing experience. As an aside, it is a bit of disconnect to hear Merkel condemn the Navalny poisoning, given how slavishly she has done Putin’s bidding with respects to Nord Stream 2 and other geopolitical issues. Regardless, Roher’s
Navalny is uncomfortably timely, coming as Putin is poised to invade Ukraine and Biden is poised to do nothing in response. Navalny, the man and the film, shows us the face of Putin’s gangster regime—and it won’t change no matter how much we try to appease him. Very highly recommended, Navalny screens again (online) this Thursday (1/27) as part of this year’s Sundance—and will eventually be seen on CNN and HBO Max.