More than four weeks into Russia’s disastrous war in Ukraine, and just one week after a court sentenced Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to nine years in a high-security prison, “Navalny” director Daniel Roher made a passionate plea on behalf of the jailed politician in Copenhagen, lashing out at the “murderous” regime of President Vladimir Putin and arguing that filmmakers must “pick a side” in an increasingly fractured and polarized world.
“There’s a right side of politics. And yes, filmmakers pick a side. Because you’re either on the side of morality and justice and rule of law and democracy, or you’re on the side of a murderous dictatorship that launches invasions of sovereign nations and murders children every day,” Roher said on Tuesday at the Copenhagen Intl. Documentary Film Festival (CPH:DOX).
The director appeared in conversation with Danish filmmaker Christoffer Guldbrandsen, the director of the upcoming documentary “A Storm Foretold,” which follows the political spin doctor Roger Stone in the final months of the Trump administration. The animated, wide-ranging, 90-minute discussion raised questions about the responsibility documentary filmmakers have toward their subjects and the ethics of giving a platform to controversial views.
“Navalny,” which was unveiled as a last-minute “surprise” entry in the U.S. Documentary Competition at Sundance in January, is a riveting portrait of the eponymous politician, a rousing populist who as a presidential candidate posed such a threat to Putin that he was poisoned in a botched assassination plot ordered by the Kremlin. Variety’s Owen Gleiberman described it in his Sundance review as “a must-watch documentary that tells [Navalny’s] inspiring, scary, and profoundly important story.”
For the director, who was granted unprecedented, fly-on-the-wall access to the opposition leader while he was holed up in Germany in 2020, trying to unravel the murder plot against him, the importance of the historical moment animated his approach to the film.
“This was one shot I had to interview [Navalny],” Roher said. “The possibility and likelihood that this was his last interview was on my mind, and we didn’t know what would happen. We didn’t know if he would be killed. We didn’t know if he’d be sentenced to prison for the rest of his life. But that question was very real.”
The film unfolds as a pulse-pounding political thriller, drawing on abundant news footage of the telegenic and charismatic opposition figure, as well as the digital footprint of a social-media savant whose YouTube and TikTok videos have collectively racked up tens of millions of views. Set alongside that is a breathless narrative that finds Navalny, his inner circle, and Bulgarian journalist hacker Christo Grozev – a member of the open-source research group Bellingcat – racing to uncover the identities of the men who poisoned Navalny with the military-grade nerve agent Novichok on a trip to Siberia.
Filming was itself a high-stakes, high-wire act. In the early days of planning, Roher recalled, he and his team had to “[sneak] across the Austrian-German border…toward a sleepy little town in the Black Forest to meet with the leader of the Russian opposition.” While filming in Germany, the group was accompanied by a secret-service detail; on one harrowing drive with Navalny, their car started making strange noises, prompting the director to wonder if that drive would be his last.
Roher didn’t have to be reminded of the stakes – or the risks – of what he was hoping to achieve. “We had to be very, very careful, because our adversary in this was a very powerful nation state who would use all the tools at their disposal to discredit us, to try and sabotage the film,” he said. “They murder people. They like to murder people.”
Filmmakers debate whether to give a ‘platform’ to controversial ideas
A different but no less vexing challenge was how to pin down and portray his shrewd protagonist. “There [was] an awareness that I am making a film about a politician who’s not just any politician, but a politician made for the 21st century,” said Roher. “I know that this guy is a social media genius who is constantly trying to control the message, and to control the political news cycle…. Everything he’s doing is a political calculation, including having a filmmaker follow him around with the camera.”
Guldbrandsen faced a similar predicament when following Stone, who he described as the “midwife” of the “Stop the Steal” movement that led to the Jan. 6 attacks on the Capitol, and the “instigating force” of an effort “to undermine American democracy.” “He’s very easy to be around. But it’s not an ease that comes from friendship. It’s mutual exploitation. I’m there for a purpose. He’s there for a purpose,” said the director.
The Dane admitted he had “never made a film with a main character where there’s such a consensus that he’s a bad guy,” noting that Stone has been described as “the cockroach of American politics.” However, he cautioned against any attempt to portray the vilified political operative as a “cardboard cutout.”
“You can argue that his role in American democracy has been very destructive. But I think it’s an enormous privilege to try and look at it without condemning it,” he said. “I think we should be very careful. I think there’s a tendency, especially in documentaries, to be too campaigning, too black and white.”
Guldbrandsen detailed how that even-handed philosophy impacted his approach to filming events surrounding the “Stop the Steal” movement and the assault on the Capitol. “I’m not for or against the Trump movement as such when I make a film,” he said. “You have lunch with a bunch of Proud Boys and the conversation gets so nasty that there’s this element of condoning by being present. But as soon as the camera’s rolling, if I have a problem with it, I should just pull myself together. I’m there to document what’s going on. I’m not there to preach.”
Roher, however, pushed back on Guldbrandsen’s insistence on “impartiality” as a director, making his case that filmmakers must “pick a side.” In the case of Stone, the Proud Boys, and the architects of “Stop the Steal,” he also asked whether Guldbrandsen was “providing a platform and a pedestal for some of these ideas” by acting as an impartial observer.
The Dane shot back. “I don’t buy into the platforming theory,” he said. “I think [Stone] represents something that is extremely important for us to understand and deal with. And I think trying to shut people up is a sign of weakness and intolerance.” He added: “I think sunlight is the best disinfectant if you want to go that way. And I think that whole de-platforming approach and cancel culture, I think it’s ignorant. It’s a lack of a sense of history. It’s terrible.”
Director insists the world not turn its back on Russia
Despite the starkness of his moral stance, Roher nevertheless embraced the opportunity to present Navalny in all his complexity. “I think that the reason Alexei is such a compelling character is because he is complex, and it’s because he does not fit into this mold that we in the West have of what the idealized political hero should be,” said the director. “And some of the more difficult and challenging aspects of his political identity and his political history were very important to discuss and to examine and evaluate.”
While interviewing Navalny in the film, Roher confronted the opposition leader about some of the controversial political positions he’s staked in the past, including his erstwhile support for ethnic Russian nationalists and his participation in the Russian March, an annual parade that draws right-wing nationalist groups. (The director pointedly referenced a participant at a rally shouting “Sieg Heil!”) Navalny, on the other hand, attempted to explain away his complicated past as a necessary political compromise in Russia, a fragile democracy where the complexities of building an opposition coalition often make for strange and uncomfortable bedfellows.
Whether he agrees with Navalny’s political positions was beside the point when making his film, the director said in Copenhagen. “I think that that can coexist with understanding that the mission he is on is righteous and vital, and he must be supported by all good people on that specific quest, which is to usher in a democratic Russia,” he added. “He believes that a beautiful Russia of the future is possible. That Putin is not Russia and Russia is not Putin. And I think in that endeavor, he needs to be supported by all people who have similar values.”
In the weeks since the buzzy Sundance premiere of “Navalny,” the Russian propaganda machine has shifted into high gear, said Roher. State media have already paraded the filmmakers over the airwaves, accusing them of being CIA operatives, pornographers, and enemies of the state – what the director described as “all of these scary, but also hilarious and absurd, claims.”
“What we’re dealing with is an authoritarian propaganda machine that pollutes the mind of the population with singular new sources. There’s not a free press anymore,” he said. “The last vestiges of independent journalism and investigative journalism have been routed out of the country, declared foreign agents.”
The filmmaker nevertheless remains committed to “mak[ing] every effort to show this film in Russia,” and anticipates a “blitzkrieg” of attention as CNN Films and HBO Max ramp up the international rollout of “Navalny.” “The people who get movies in theaters, the people who get eyeballs on screen, have very much embraced this film because of the moment,” he said.
The timing, he added, could not be more urgent. “I think that in this moment, as we’re watching these egregious, horrifying images which are proliferating from Ukraine, what the world needs to be reminded of is that not all Russian people are in favor of this horrible war,” he said. “And if we pivot our energy toward a hatred or distrust of Russians, that is incredibly damaging. I hope that in this incredible darkness, the story of Navalny and his character can be a light.”
Asked about the potential wider impact of the film’s release, however, Roher was more pragmatic. “Alexei Navalny’s life is in peril. He is in this prison colony in the custody of the same man who tried to murder him,” he said. “And the way you keep him alive is by keeping him in the global consciousness. Keeping his name in the headlines…. His life is in danger every single day. And that’s what is motivating us.”