Navalny: Daniel Roher’s Docu about Russia’s Most Famous Dissident

‘Navalny’ Director Reveals How He Filmed Russia’s Most Famous Dissident

Daniel Roher took nearly 500 hours of footage of Alexei Navalny to make his documentary that was bought by CNN Films and HBO Max.

Director Daniel Roher has kept his latest documentary under wraps for so long that he still forgets he can openly talk about it. “I have to be like, oh right, it’s not a state secret anymore,” he says.

Navalny is the docu that was revealed by Sundance Film Fest to be the “mystery movie” on this year’s virtual line-up.

It follows Alexei Navalny, Russia’s famous government opposition leader, who was targeted in assassination attempt in August 2020.

After an emergency evacuation from Russia, Navalny received treatment in Germany during which time he had been poisoned with a toxic nerve agent. The European Union later determined that Navalny’s poisoning “was only possible with the consent of the Presidential Executive Office.” The Kremlin has long denied involvement in the poisoning.

 

Navalny

 

Roher, who screened his last docu Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band at the Toronto Film Festival, met Navalny in November 2020, three months after the political activist’s poisoning.

The director began shooting the day after that first meeting with principal photography lasting until Navlny was jailed upon his return to Moscow on January 17, 2021, leaving Roher and his editors with nearly 500 hours of footage.

CNN Films and HBO Max had partnered to acquire the film, which won the Audience Award at the just concluded viral edition. Navalny is set to be broadcast in North America on CNN, then it will made available on streaming services HBO Max and CNN+.

First meeting Alexei?

It’s kind of an epic story in and of itself. I found myself working on a project with few colleagues and we were in Ukraine. And that project didn’t work out and I found myself in Vienna, Austria, in limbo. It was lockdown. I was not sure what I would be doing, not sure if there was a film to make, not sure if I’d be going back to Canada. And that’s when one of my colleagues, a journalist who I was working with named Christo Grozev, said to me, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t go back to Ukraine right now, but there’s something else. You know, that Navalny guy?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know that Navaly guy.’ And he said, ‘I think I have a lead in who tried to poison him.’ As a documentary filmmaker, my ears immediately perked up and a week later Christo and Odessa Rae, one of the producers of the film, and myself were sitting across from Alexei in this little room in the black forest.

Conditions for making the documentary?

What we understood going into that meeting is that they were open to the idea of having a documentary made and we were just fortunate enough that we were there. We could get there in 12 hours in a car. My understanding, and I had no concept of this when we went there, but I learned later that Alexei and one of his chief investigators, they were conceiving of a documentary project. I later learned that when Alexei woke up from his coma in Berlin, he had two visions: One was of doing this gigantic investigative video about Vladimir Putin’s palace and his illicit wealth. And the other was to do this big, in his mind, Hollywood documentary movie. So they were open to the idea, they were open to the concept.

Did they tell you what they hoped to get from the documentary?

Yeah, it was hilarious. Alexei Navalny was like, ‘We want big documentary film and we wanted to be like Tiger King. I Love Tiger King. Let’s make something amazing like this.’ And I was like, uh, yeah that’s not really my style filmmaking.

I think Navalny had in his mind what it might be like to make a big documentary, but it was certainly different from my conception and how I worked. So, that meeting right from the beginning seemed very collaborative, where they expressed their expectations and hopes and ambitions for a possible documentary film and I expressed what I need and how I work.

How long did you film with Navalny?

About three months. This is what it is to be a documentarian. When you fall into something like this, you have to charge into the unknown with every morsel of energy, strength, and passion that you have on offer. We had no concept of how we would get this film made. We had no concept of how we would get this film financed. We just knew we had had to keep shooting.

Docu’s goals?

From the very inception, I had to be hyperaware of the fact that I was making a documentary about a politician who’s not just a normal politician, but a politician who is a master of the social media. A master of commanding and manipulating the media for his political aims and ambitions. I had to be acutely aware of that as we were making this film. That struggle, that dialogue is present throughout the movie. I wanted to make it very clear in the film that this was an objective documentary we were making about him.

Ultimately, I think Alexei enjoyed being the subject of a documentary. This is a known cliche, but trust is a critical part of the relationship. I think that we really understood one another.

Most shocking thing?

The most extraordinary moment for me was when Alexei conceived of this idea that he would call up members of the team that was responsible for his would-be murder and essentially prank them. I thought it might be an interesting set piece of the movie and we’ll shoot it just to shoot it, but professional spies, Russian hitmen who work for the government, aren’t morons. They’re not just going to spill the beans on the phone. I don’t speak a word of Russian, so it’s critical to understand that during those phone calls I didn’t understand a word that was being spoken. But I understood everything. I see how intense these Russian people who do not emote and their jaws are unhinged and they are in a state of disbelief. I remember just being like, okay make sure we’re rolling, keep it in focus. This is the most important thing you’ll ever film in your entire life. And then afterward everyone was freaking out. We were running around like chickens with their heads cut off. I was like let’s offload the footage right now. Should we call the police? Do we need protection at the house? It was this extraordinary moment that was the beginning of an 18 or 20 hour shoot day.

Navalny released footage of that phone call on social media?

That footage has been seen 35 million times and I think that 34 million of those views have been on Russian YouTube. I think a lot of people in the West who will be engaging with this film actually don’t know this story. For those who do, I think the most amazing part for our audience members is what comes after the call.

Finding distribution?  

This is a scary movie.  It was frightening for a lot of people. If you want to do business in Russia, this is a film that was radioactive. You could not go near it. We understood that we had to have partners who both appreciated the magnitude of what we were trying to accomplish, but who were not afraid of the undertaking.

Feeling unsafe during production?

I was paranoid. There was one moment when I flew home back to Canada for a couple of days in the middle of production. I was in my little apartment in Toronto, and I was transferring footage all day. And I went for a jog and I was like five blocks from my apartment and I was like every hard drive’s in my apartment right now. I just chill right up my spine and I’m like, what if the guys at the Russian embassy have been keeping eyes on me and they know I went for a run. So I ran back. But in terms of my personal security and my personal safety, it was hard for me to be scared or fearful when I’m standing next to the bravest man on Earth.

Security issues?

We were very careful. We had a lot of security protocols, and we tried our best to be very careful. I haven’t sent an email in a year. Everything we’ve been doing has been over Signal, and encrypted messages. I think that if we ran into security issues, we might not know about it. But there’s been no indication that that’s been the case. And I think a lot of it has to do with how careful our practices were.

Audience in mind during production?

What answers that question is the fact that when Alexei gave his interview, he did it in English. What that indicates is that I think he was speaking to a Western audience. But at the same time, I really think a Russian audience, an Eastern European audience, will enjoy the film just as much. I’m a Canadian; I don’t speak Russian. Just that reality of me making the movie orients it to Western audience.

Alexei will not be able to watch the documentary. Feedback from his team?

Navalny had an Instagram post a few weeks ago where, when he announced the film, he joked that the prison library does not have HBO Max subscription. He won’t get to see it for a long time, but the key roster of his team members have seen the documentary at this point, as well as family members. There are moments in the film that are a uncomfortable for the staff, but, ultimately, I think everyone felt that it was a deeply humanizing portrait.

Navalny is in jail now but, should his situation change, would go back to?

The sequel that I wanna make, which I might have to shoot in 15 or 20 or 25 or 30 years, is the story of a single day in Russia where there is inauguration for President Navalny.