The world works in funny ways; for instance, the release of Daniel Roher's ('Once Were Brothers') new documentary, 'Navalny', couldn't be timelier. It comes as its subject, Russian lawyer-turned-Putin political opponent Alexei Navalny, is currently imprisoned for a parole violation and facing a sentence extension of up to 15 years for other unclear charges. It also comes as tensions between Russia's vicious, violent invasion of Ukraine reach the 6-month mark, and as reporting has faded from the front of the daily news cycle. 'Navalny' serves as both a chilling stranger-than-fiction political thriller that many screenwriters would dream of concocting, and a reminder to the public that Russia's corrupt government is yet to face repercussions for their actions.
Following an introduction to Navalny's career and political beginnings as an opponent of Putin, the documentary settles into reporting and recounting the murder attempt on his life by the Russian government. In August 2020, a plane on which Navalny was travelling made an emergency landing in Omsk, Siberia in order to save his life (footage from the actual flight chillingly shows a poisoned Navalny groaning in excruciating pain). Even after leaving the plane for his safety and being transported to a hospital, sketchy security and doctors make it very clear that his life is still in danger. The attempt, which Navalny mocks for its inefficiency - "If you want to kill someone, you should just shoot them!" he says - is depicted with such derision as that reserved for Russian President Vladimir Putin himself, shown in numerous clips refusing to even refer to Navalny by name. Even funnier then is the revelation that the poison used to try and kill Navalny was none other than Novichok, so commonly used by the Kremlin the smoking gun could be considered a personal sign off on the assignation from Putin himself.
As the second half of the documentary deals with the fallout of the poisoning, it's straight up incredible to witness the entire situation unfold. Over months of research and data cutting, such as that from flight manifests, Navalny and his team are able to piece together the conspiracy leading to his poisoning. This all culminates in a sequence one really has to see to believe; huddled with his team and filming the entire event on their iPhones, Navalny prank calls a number of scientists who may have had a part in his poisoning. All it takes is one loose link in the chain for a shell-shocked Navalny and his team to receive an incredibly detailed recount of the failed poisoning. It's harrowing footage, made even more so by Navalny's team's post-call nervous laughs about the inevitably sealed fate of the singing scientist. It's also the kind of footage you would expect from an overly-contrived, over-written thriller.
All it takes is one loose link in the chain for a shell-shocked Navalny and his team to receive an incredibly detailed recount of the failed poisoning.
Of course, the hyper-stylised nature of many moments in the documentary lead to an at times meticulousness that matches Navalny's production on his YouTube videos and calls into question the authenticity of the people being captured. As with any documentary filmmaking - especially one this up close and personal - maintaining some objectivity over your subject can often become close to impossible. Thankfully, there are measures that Roher puts in place to prevent this from happening – including but not limited to pressing Navalny on the more questionable allegiances he kept earlier in his political career - but they don't do much to paint Navalny as anything less than a freedom fighter with a few minor chinks in his armour.
Ultimately, Daniel Roher has hit the jackpot with 'Navalny', a documentary so meticulously well-timed to capture an integral moment in political history it feels like a once-in-a-lifetime event. It also manages to capture both the horror and hopefulness that come with imposing meaningful action against a hostile political landscape. Even though its subject may spend the rest of his life in prison, this documentary ensures his story and his fight will never be easily forgotten.