Daniel Roher no longer leads a double life – but 2021 was different. At the time, even close friends of the Canadian filmmaker had no idea what he was working on. He’s been mostly silent on social media, save for the occasional photo of his grandmother.
Then, on January 13th of this year, a press release was announced out of nowhere Navalnya documentary portrait of an imprisoned Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, secretly filmed in Germany for three months from November 2020. It begins with his recovery after being poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok and ends with his arrest at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. This, it turned out, was what Roher had in mind.
In the last 10 weeks he has been in the spotlight even more dramatically. Despite the war in Ukraine, the 29-year-old filmmaker says Russian state propagandists still found time to portray him as a CIA pawn. “I can only laugh,” he tells me.
Of course, the world has changed since January. A film that would once have pushed for the release of its subject from the infamous IK-2 prison colony now has a dual mission: “The urgent need is simply to remind people that there is an alternative Russian future.”
“I was in the right place when I needed to be,” Roher says of the 2020 moment when his film abruptly came together. Last year he published Once upon a time there were brothersa respected documentary about musicians Robbie Robertson. But he also wanted to make films with real-world political impact. A possible project had taken him to Vienna, the base of Christo Grozev, a Bulgarian researcher for the investigative collective Bellingcat. “Sherlock Holmes with a laptop,” Roher calls him. But the director was ready to return to Toronto without a film when Grozev told him about a breakthrough. Using open source information, he had identified the Russian FSB agents responsible for the attempt to kill Navalny.
The two soon drove hours to Ibach, a hamlet in the Black Forest, where a recovering Navalny fought the Kremlin again. Grozev presented Navalny with his flight logs and black market phone metadata. Roher did what directors do: he pitched. “I told Alexei: what is happening is historical and must be recorded. And I’m here. My camera is here.”
While he only had a lay knowledge of Russian politics, Roher believes another quality counted in his favor. An unscrupulous lover of public order, he could be described as a militant bourgeois. (He eventually wants to run for office in Canada.) “And I think that resonated with Navalny. He has decided to like me.”
Navalny playfully suggested the Netflix series King of the Tigers Like a model; Roher wasn’t the man for the job. A more serious debate concerned the right of veto. “I said, ‘It’s absolutely your prerogative to hire someone to make a film for you. But I can’t give you a final cut.’”
Navalny cautiously agreed. Initially, Roher worked without funding. (CNN later lent support.) He initially focused on Grozev’s breadcrumb trail of the FSB’s attempted assassination, and by extension, on Putin. And he even turned dark to old friends: “I understood that we needed rest.” His biggest personal concern was the security of his camera files, but he realized there was more at stake in Ibach. “We had to assume that the regime might try to assassinate Alexei again while we were filming.”
If the Kremlin was humiliated by Navalny’s survival, salt would soon be added to the wound. After Grozev identified the members of the FSB kill team, Navalny proceeded to telephone them (with Roher filming), posing as an FSB bureaucrat and demanding to know how the attack had failed. An unfortunate chemist named Konstantin Kudryavtsev took the bait and revealed the whole conspiracy in grimly arresting detail. Navalny’s revenge was served cold and with a touch of farce (much of the action revolved around his underwear). “It’s just a fabulous performance,” says Roher.
But the film would also broaden its lens. Over the next three months, the director made a continuous snapshot of Navalny in exile: connecting with his advisers, playing call of Duty (his steadfast wife Yulia Navalnaya prefers chess) and the creation of the YouTube videos whose exposure of the enormous corruption in Putin’s circle has reached millions of Russians and defined his opposition. Final cut or not, Roher says he was aware of the risks of working with such a brilliant media strategist. “My job was to make Alexei hyper-aware as an authentic modern media genius. The question of how much he could use me is woven into the film.”
Off-camera, Roher says, the two could have heated conversations about topics like censorship. (Navalny publicly opposed Donald Trump’s ban from Twitter.) “But Alexei liked that. He enjoys the fun of confrontational debates.” His film’s Navalny is as smart as any politician — but also funny, charismatic, and brave. We are invited to laugh at Russian state media claiming that his illness was caused by “orgies and antidepressants” after being poisoned by Western vices. Less amusingly, the same propaganda machine invented the fraud charges for which he is now imprisoned.
But not everything negative is a Kremlin smear. Any honest portrait of Navalny has to deal with complexity. Though more or less a social democrat today, he marched alongside far-right Russian ultranationalists in the 2000s. Roher questions these old associations in front of the camera. “It was uncomfortable. The subject is taboo for him. I had to double down when he tried to get rid of me.” (Navalny eventually defends his decision as an attempt to build an anti-Putin coalition.)
In 2019, veteran filmmaker Alex Gibney released Citizen K, a study of exiled former oligarch-turned-pro-democracy activist Mikhail Khodorkovsky. When I interviewed Khodorkovsky at the time, he dismissed Navalny as “in the tsar’s paradigm.” Roher disagrees. “A fragmented opposition only helps the Kremlin. But Alexei also promotes democratic competition. So what he might say is, ‘Let’s both work so we can eventually compete.’ And I know Khodorkovsky himself was imprisoned, but it’s one thing to criticize in London or Vilnius or Vienna. It is more difficult to return to Russia and be arrested.”
Navalny did just that in January 2021. He had always told Roher he wanted to return to Moscow. Still, the director found out about the timing just minutes before the announcement on social media. Since then, speculation has raged on whether Navalny was banking on anti-Kremlin protests inspired by his presence, which sparked an uprising – or whether he was banking on the health of an aging Putin longer. “All I know is that he knew he was about to be arrested,” says Roher. “And he felt that this was his destiny. But his optimism is genuine. He believes Putin will fall and run for president. And as a politician, he believes he will win.”
Roher last saw Navalny being taken away at Sheremetyevo. His job then was to discreetly edit his 500 hours of footage. A year later, the existence of the film was made public. A week later, a surprise premiere at the Sundance Film Festival drew a standing ovation and what Grozev described as a rapid-fire attack by Russian bots, which denied the film’s listing on IMDb.com. Despite the acclaim, not every Western film distributor was interested in coming on board in the weeks leading up to the invasion of Ukraine. “Anyone who wanted to do business in Russia couldn’t mess with us,” explains Roher. (Navalny will be published in the US by Warner Bros/HBO and in the UK by Indie Dogwoof.)
But the film’s Western audience is no longer its primary concern. With Russia now doomed to an independent news blackout, subterfuge is back in play. “Of course I can’t go into details,” says Roher, “but we plan for the film to be seen in Russia by as many Russians as possible. That has top priority now.”
In Curzon cinemas in the UK from 12 April, with a wider release to follow.
In US theaters April 11 and coming soon to HBO Max
Follow @ftweekend on Twitter to be the first to know about our latest stories
https://www.ft.com/content/73a1a48c-e1b7-453f-a253-1ed163c87a68 Documentary filmmaker von Navalny: “He believes that Putin will fall and run for president”