Sundance 2022: Navalny
Every so often, a documentary is made in which the filmmaker had access to shocking, world-changing events. And several of those times in recent years, it’s had something to do with Vladimir Putin and Russia.
That was the case with Icarus, Bryan Fogel’s 2017 that won the Best Documentary Oscar and went from the lighthearted story of the director cheating to win a cycling race into a tale of intrigue involving Putin’s Olympic doping regime. That was also the case with Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour, the Oscar winner from three years earlier, which followed Edward Snowden’s decision to leak the existence of major U.S. intelligence secrets.
Navalny, directed by Daniel Poher and headed at some point in 2022 to CNN and HBO Max, follows a couple of years in the life of Alexey Navalny, the anti-corruption activist and opposition leader in Russia. Like most figures who rise up against Russia’s autocratic leader Vladimir Putin, Navalny ended up poisoned, with a nerve agent called Novichok, to which one but the Russian FSB has access. Two years later, Navalny, upon his return to Russia, was arrested and remains imprisoned to this day.
Poher’s film is bookended by those two flights — the one on which he suffered the effects of the poison, and then the one after which he was arrested — and covers some amazing stuff in between.
There’s some exploration of Navalny’s backstory and how he got into position as Putin’s most formidable opponent. He’s depicted as a handsome and charismatic leader, able to speak English well and engage with the international press, while also commanding massive social media followings. He even has an unaccented daughter who calls to college in the United States.
The film isn’t shy about showing his negative side. Navalny had flirted with some pretty nasty, far-right, immigrant-hating political views in an earlier part of his career, which the film doesn’t deny, although it does go to how the political factions in Russia don’t conform so easily to Western standards of left and right.
But the bulk of the film has a front-row seat in dealing with Navalny’s investigation of the poisoning, while in exile in Germany, with help from journalist Christo Grozev, of the media outlet Bellingcat. This leads up to what is certain to be the best documentary scene of the year.
Navalny and his team have figured out the names of the agents who carried out the poisoning, and one by one, they call them up. For one of them, in what amounts to a prank call, one of the poisoners admits to his part on tape.
It’s not only riveting, but it’s historically important stuff, along the lines of when we saw Edward Snowden with the reporters in the Hong Kong hotel room. Yet despite the similarity to Citizenfour, several of the people involved in that documentary likely think of Navalny and his journalistic collaborators in Bellingcat as CIA stooges. And it is striking when we see Putin speak in the film, just how identical his talking points are to that of his loudest tankie shills in the United States.
At the time of the film’s premiere at Sundance, Putin was reportedly preparing to invade Ukraine. World leaders may not have figured out the best way to deal with this autocratic supervillain, but it’s clear that documentarians have.