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‘Navalny’ Director Daniel Roher: Imprisoned Russian Opposition Leader’s Impact on History is Unfulfilled

TheWrap magazine: ”It’s very, very sad to know that (Alexei Navalny) has never seen our film and he may never see our film,“ the filmmaker says 

A version of this interview with “Navalny” director Daniel Roher first appeared in the Guilds & Critics Awards / Documentaries issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

In “Navalny,” director Daniel Roher follows the charismatic Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny as he convalesces in Germany after being poisoned in 2020 with a Soviet-era nerve agent. Unfolding like a thriller, the HBO Max film traces how Navalny — who shares his anti-authoritarian message almost entirely via social media — and a team of investigators discover who was behind the murder attempt.

The documentary also explores why Navalny was determined to return to Russia in 2021, where he was immediately arrested. He is now serving a nine-year sentence in a maximum security penal colony notorious for prisoner abuse. We sat down with Roher to discuss the making of the film.

Alexei Navalny is a talented, extremely media savvy politician, which presents certain challenges to you as a filmmaker. In the opening scene, he even tells you what kind of film the documentary should be.
The meta narrative of the film is this conflict between subject and filmmaker. Who’s directing who? What agency does the subject have? What controls does the director have? And that is a tension that we tried to thread throughout the entire movie. There are various points where Navalny tells me what he wants, but ultimately, this is our film, we have control, and we’re making the movie we want to make. At the end of the film, we come back to where we started, when Navalny gives me the direction to make a thriller. And the film ends with me giving him the last direction of the movie.

Of course, I have to ask about the bombshell of a scene when Navalny calls the scientist Konstantin Kudryavtsev and, pretending to be a high-ranking official with the Kremlin, gets him to explain how he and a Kremlin-backed network poisoned Navalny. You don’t speak Russian, but the electricity in the room must have been incredible.
It was extraordinary, perhaps the most extraordinary moment of my life. I was on the B camera with very little expectation that anything would really manifest that morning. It seemed like another one of Navalny’s schemes — a stunt, political theater, maybe.

And I remember the moment when I saw Maria Pevchikh, the chief investigator of Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation — I watched her jaw unhinge and hit the floor. And that moment is in the film. The way that it feels to watch that scene was very similar to how it felt to have been in the room. You used the word electricity and that’s what it felt like — a volt of electricity ran up and down my spine. It’s the most extraordinary thing I will ever film in my life.

An ominous shadow hangs over your film because it’s clear from the outset that Navalny’s future in his homeland is bleak: imprisonment or death. Was that another tension, grappling with the reality that as he boards the plane to return to Moscow, he is marching toward something awful?
Well, first and foremost, I want to speak to the relationship I had with Alexei. It was very friendly, very cordial, but there were clear delineations of boundaries. Of course, you forge a relationship with this guy. It’s tough not to like him. And to understand that he is essentially sacrificing himself for this cause that is bigger than he is and to watch him go back to Russia to an uncertain, but certainly grim, future, it’s really hard. The understanding that this guy who I care about, who I think is good for the world and good for the future of Russia, whose impact on history, I think, is unfulfilled — while he sits in a gulag and languishes, where his human rights are being deprived, where he is essentially being tortured, that’s very, very challenging. And it’s very, very sad to know that he has never seen our film and he may never see our film. 

Have you stayed in touch with him? Is it even possible to stay in touch with him?
It’s not. About two or three months ago, his attorney-client privilege was revoked. Every every prisoner in the Russian penal system is afforded the right to attorney-client privilege, except for Alexei Navalny. He can no longer communicate privately with his legal team. And that sort of signifies his lifeline to the world being severed, being cut. Many analysts have suggested that that is a precondition necessary for Navalny being assassinated or killed whilst in custody. We have to have hope that that won’t happen. But it’s certainly scary and the world should be paying attention and taking note.

Have you been in touch with his family?
I’ve been in touch with his family. I believe he has limited contact to his family. But his visits from his wife and his mother and his daughter and his son have been, I think, restricted or completely remote. So they’re doing everything they can to break his spirit. But this is a man whose spirit is forged in iron and steel and the alloy that composes his character is very strong. And it is my hope that he not only survives this ordeal, but that he’s able to one day get out of prison and fulfill his mark on the history of his country, which I hope will be a brighter day and a new course for Russia’s future.

Read more from the Guilds & Critics Awards / Documentaries issue here.