Navalny prompted me to stop what I was doing, and write about it with a sense of urgency. I love when that happens. It is a documentary with impact. It leaves you feeling clear about things that can’t just be looked up on Google, or consumed through social media. For me, these are some of the best qualities of non-fiction films.
It received no cinema run after premiering at Sundance in January, then being picked up for distribution by Warner Bros. Pictures. Instead, it has been shown on various TV channels, in various countries at various times, with mixed availability on the big streaming services.
So it will have flown under the radar for many, which I can only describe as un asco. It deserves more public discourse than Don’t Look Up got last December. Except for Fire of Love (which belongs in some special category of its own, it is so mesmerising) it is the best documentary I have seen this year. It is the most relevant documentary I have seen for a long time.
If you aren’t going to watch many documentaries this year, watch this one. Fire of Love is great, but it can be enjoyed at any time. This one should be watched now, as the Russo-Ukrainian War continues and the Russian invasion kills more each day — including civilian targets, child casualties, and reports of people with disabilities (including children) being used as human shields.
Alexei Navalny is a leader of the non-systemic opposition (read: “real” opposition) in Russia who built traction, support, and fame as a bold and uncompromising Putin critic. You may remember him as the man in the news who was poisoned by the Novichok nerve agent in August 2020, lucky to survive after an embattled emergency evacuation to Berlin for medical attention.
He was put in a medically-induced coma, and survived. Also, thanks to the evacuation to Germany, traces of the poison were found (it is engineered by Russia to leave no trace after a few hours).
Canadian Daniel Roher directs, with filming starting shortly after Navalny came out of the coma. It continued right through to the moment he flew back to Russia, where he was arrested on arrival, and remains in jail there today.
The film crew were next to him at border control as he was arrested, so the film covers an important timespan in its entirety, between recovering from the assassination attempt and being thrown in jail.
The interview technique is excellent. We get a good sense of the man, his “first lady” and wife, Yulia (who was instrumental in fighting for his survival while in the Russian hospital), and the small team around him. Their personalities, characters, values, and spirit. The candid moments you don’t get reading the news or on social media are invaluable.
The small team we follow, with Navalny as leader, consists of a crack squad of dogged Russians with no discernible fear. They are the skeleton staff of an opposition party that once had official offices based in Russia, and were able to hold rallies and conduct political operations there.
They continued their fight against Putin in DIY style from overseas, after their party was branded “extremist” and outlawed, making it impossible to use the conventional means of reaching the Russian people, such as rallies. They have a kind of ragged, scrappy quality as a group, with a good sense of humour. This gives the film a bright energy. They remind of the French Resistance, but modernised.
The approach Navalny took was that with no money, a small group of trusted people, a lot of hard work, and an internet connection, they could fight effectively against one of the most powerful regimes on the planet, despite the legal barriers. He was right. And, tellingly… “they” (the FSB, Kremlin, Putin) realised that he was right.
Navalny makes a comment early in the documentary that captures the nature of Putin’s regime well:
Navalny: As I became more and more a famous guy, I was totally sure that my life became safer and safer, because I’m a kind of “famous guy,” and it will be problematic for them just to kill me.
Interviewer: And boy were you wrong.
Navalny: Yes, I was… very wrong.
That he and his team continued fighting after finding out their sense of safety was false is admirable.
I think this comment also shows a misunderstanding of the nature of evil regimes most of us have. A false sense of safety which can be exploited to cause sudden, unexpected harm on a societal level.
It is easy to see regimes like Putin’s as playing by the rules, when they never really are. They are faking playing by the rules, while their command and the culture around it is waiting for the opportunity to make bold and unexpected strikes. A political “rope a dope,” in Muhammad Ali's terms.
Something about the heart of evil is illustrated here, beyond the obvious fact that “Putin likes to make bold moves.” When an evil individual takes power, they appear to play by established rules… until they are suddenly not. Usually something they have calculated to get away with in a faulty manner. Sometimes simply to get the result they want, damn the consequences. A childlike mentality that is insanely dangerous in positions of power — but, does get there.
Regimes like Putin's are playing by different rules, where conscience never enters the picture. Even Navalny, who made his career out of shining a light on Putin's “party of crooks and thieves,” miscalculated how bold he could be. Putin's party, United Russia, is the extremist organisation.
The stunning centrepiece of the documentary is showing the process through which Navalny and his team were able to investigate and establish several government figures likely to be members of the assassination team, and reach them by phone.
After contacting two of them without hiding his identity, asking mockingly what went wrong when they tried to kill him, Navalny tries a third time in “prank call” style.
They call a chemist who is at home suffering from Covid-19, a little foggy in the head, and all-to-eager to please his higher ups (something authoritarian powers tend to suffer from). Amazingly, he was able to fool him into a confession on tape, posing as a senior government official demanding a brief report about why the assassination attempt failed. He gave that report to Navalny, who played the part superbly, in impressive detail.
It is a staggering, broad daylight reveal of what lies beneath Russian state-sponsored lies, and shows what a few determined and smart people can do.
The movie ends on a similarly inspiring note, addressed by Navalny in Russian (his interviews are otherwise in English), to the Russian people.
Above all, the film leaves a strong impression of how it is possible to keep a light heart, keep laughing, keep love in your eyes, and fight on against evil — even when facing extreme danger and persecution.