A documentary film about Alexei Navalny, who narrowly survived an apparent novichok poisoning attempt, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
The 90-minute film, simply titled Navalny, features flying footage of the Russian opposition leader, filmed during the several months he spent in Germany in late 2020 while recovering from poisoning. There are interviews with Navalny, his wife, Yulia, and his closest team.
The film’s most extraordinary sequence is when, from Navalny’s salvage hideout in the Black Forest, he pranks one of the hitmen he believes committed the poisoning, and revealed details of the incident while pretending to be angry. boss of the security services.
“I just remember saying, ‘OK, make sure we roll, keep it in focus. It’s the most important thing you’ll ever film in your life,” said director Daniel Roher in a interview with Hollywood Reporter on the time of the telephone confession.
“Afterwards, everyone panicked. We were running around like chickens with their heads cut off. I was like, ‘Let’s unload the footage right now. Should we call the police? Do we need protection at home? »
Roher originally planned to make a film on a different subject with Christo Grozev, a Bulgarian investigator working for Bellingcat, the team of online sleuths and investigative journalists.
However, after Navalny was poisoned, Grozev began looking for clues as to who might have been behind the shot. After buying phone and theft records on the Russian dark web, he found a group of eight men FSB security services who appeared to have been following Navalny on trips across Russia for several years.
Grozev contacted Navalny and traveled to Germany to meet him and share the information he found. Roher came with him and continued filming. It turned out that Navalny and his team had already thought about making a movie, and a collaboration began.
“When Alexei woke up from his coma in Berlin, he had two visions. One was to make this gigantic investigative video about Vladimir Putin’s palace and his illicit wealth. And the other was to make this big, in his mind, a Hollywood documentary film,” Roher said.
Navalny fell ill in August 2020 while boarding a plane from Tomsk in Siberia to Moscow. Thanks to the quick actions of the pilot, who made an emergency landing in Omsk, he did not die, and he was then transported to Berlin, where he made a long and slow recovery.
The Kremlin has denied any involvement in the poisoning and President Vladimir Putin has refused to say Navalny’s name in public, obliquely referring to him as “that gentleman”, “a certain character” or “the Berlin patient”.
The film ends with Navalny returning to Russia in January 2021. He was arrested upon arrival at the airport and then sentenced to two years and eight months in prison, for allegedly violating the terms of his sentence following a previous fraud conviction that was widely seen. as politically motivated. He is serving his sentence in a penal colony 100 km east of Moscow.
Since Navalny’s poisoning, his Anti-Corruption Foundation has been declared an extremist organization and many of its leaders and regional coordinators have been forced to flee the country.
The making of the film had been kept under wraps until earlier this month, and its appearance on the Sundance schedule was only announced at the last minute. The premiere took place online on Tuesday evening, as this year’s Sundance is virtual due to Covid. Maria Pevchikh, a close associate of Navalny who was with him in Tomsk when he was poisoned, was the film’s executive producer.
At the end of the film, Navalny responds to a request from the director to record a message for the possibility that he will be killed upon his return. “I have something very obvious to tell you: don’t give up, you are not allowed. If they decide to kill me, it means we are incredibly strong and we have to use this power,” he said.
In an Instagram post announcing the film, Navalny complained in his usual irreverent tone that the prison library where he is serving his sentence doesn’t have an HBO Max subscription, so he won’t be able to watch it.