In 2020 December, Navalny will release an extended version of the rambling chat that supposedly lasted for 49 minutes. As is the prerogative of any good journalist, Roher has edited this call down to its essential six minutes (although he has not drawn attention to this, and a close comparison of the editing suggests the movie has tightened not just for time but for drama). Navalny cites the admissions as evidence of a phenomena he dubs “Moscow4,” after the password that was so simple to crack. Stupidity undermining the system.
On top of the coup of hearing that phone call, Roher has put together an exciting and interesting portrait of Navalny and his close group. Both Grozev, who can find information in murky parts of the web with astonishing ease, and Pevchikh, who has an executive-producer credit, would be great subjects for their own documentaries. (Grozev and Roher had already crossed paths on another project, and Grozev introduced Roher to Navalny.)
And Roher does his best to make Navalny seem like a regular guy. In Germany, where Navalny recuperated after being poisoned, he records the politician and his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, feeding farm animals and debating whether or not it is appropriate to take an apple from a tree. To all appearances, Navalny knows his way around TikTok better than his college-aged daughter does.
Recent New York City premiere of Roher’s film included an on-stage acknowledgement from the director that Navalny is a natural in front of the camera. The documentary occasionally makes note of the fact that Navalny is image conscious, such as when Pevchikh asks him if Roher’s questions are bothering him. It’s evident that Roher has a great deal of respect for Navalny, and it’s probable that the only challenging question we get is the standard one of whether or not Navalny was wrong to attend a 2011 rally of far-right nationalists.
But for the most part, the movie is a thriller, just as Navalny requested, building to a tense retelling of Navalny’s post-recovery return to Russia in January 2021, when his jet was diverted from the airport where his followers had gathered. Not long after he touched down, police picked him up. And in a movie packed with international tension, a simple conversation really shines out. Once Navalny has been removed, a Covid compliance officer can process Navalnaya’s paperwork and let them through. Then he adds, “and your husband,” meaning “thank you.”
In January, the film Navalny debuted at the online Sundance Film Festival, before Russian President Vladimir V. Putin launched a military invasion of Ukraine in February and before the film’s subject, imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, obtained a nine-year sentence extension in March. The foreign community sees the lawsuit against him as an attempt by the Kremlin to silence a vocal Putin opponent.
Despite these recent dismal events, Canadian filmmaker Daniel Roher’s (Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band) documentary about a politician who has the fortitude to stand up to a rising totalitarian wave nevertheless plays like a crowd-pleaser. Helpfully, Navalny also possesses the charisma and wit of a Hollywood star. Navalny immediately starts begging Roher to add suspense to the movie. Navalny explains that if he is killed, he is allowed to create a boring memorial.