Mounting a campaign against a powerful regime in any environment can be a challenge. But when the reason for action is because of widespread corruption, it’s a battle that may be impossible to win since the other side will be willing to take any and all necessary action, regardless of its legality. The current state of technology and access to information around the world makes this the best time to try to take down an authoritarian government, yet it’s still frightening to see how difficult that can be even in this present moment. Navalny showcases Alexei Navalny, the man who tried to take on Vladimir Putin and found his life directed threatened as a result.
Navalny opens with its eloquent, well-dressed, and charming protagonist speaking directly to filmmaker Daniel Roher in an empty bar, laughing at the serious tone of the conversation and proclaiming that they shouldn’t yet be talking about whether he will end up getting killed. Navalny is featured heavily in footage from the past two years, dating back to an incident where Navalny was poisoned and then held in a Russian hospital before being flown to Germany, and chronicling his efforts to unearth the ruthless efforts of Putin and his allies to remain in forceful control of both their country and the narrative.
It’s interesting to get to know Navalny, who is great on camera in any language and who is never short on things to say. He’s also happy to discuss any subject, something that Putin declares he too will do in a press conference but which involves much spin and demonization of his opponent, whose name he refuses to utter. For Navalny, that includes his presence at a rally with far-right activists, which he refuses to condemn or apologize for, citing the need for unity in the face of a greater threat. While that answer may not be entirely satisfactory, and Roher pushes back on it, it may be a case of the old “the enemy of my enemy” adage.
Those following international news over the past few years may be familiar with the events portrayed in this film, but they are assembled in such a vivid and energizing way that the experience of watching this documentary may still feel fresh and worthwhile. For those not in the know, it’s a captivating journey, one that includes an unforgettable moment in which Navalny and his colleagues get absolute proof of wrongdoing admitted on a phone line and react in real time to the significance of their unexpected breakthrough.
It should be obvious that Putin remains in control of Russia, and that, regardless of the reach of Navalny’s work, corruption is still fervent and widespread. But this documentary raises enormous concerns about how the concept of “fake news” can be truly weaponized in a way that Americans can’t even begin to understand and hope to never fully be able to know. Roher is a skilled documentarian who knows how to take a charismatic and enthusiastic subject and somehow make his story even more intriguing and involving than it already is. This film doubles as a biography and a searing indictment of an impossible broken system, and its contents are understandably hard to shake.
Navalny won the U.S. Documentary Competition Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, as well as the overall Festival Favorite Award. CNN and HBO Max will distribute later this year.