Daniel Roher with Alexei Navalny, 2021

Alexei Navalny, Russia’s leading political opposition figure, died on February 16th. He was incarcerated at the IK-3 penal colony in the Arctic Circle, one of the country’s most brutal prisons, where he had survived a hunger strike and was subjected to frequent isolation and punishment. A month later, in the midst of the war in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin claimed a preordained fifth term after a presidential election in which he ran essentially unopposed.

Outside Russia, many got their first close-up look at the Russian politician and anti-corruption activist while watching Daniel Roher’s 2022 documentary, Navalny. Roher began filming in 2020, after Navalny was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok and was planning his return to Russia while living with his family in a German village. As it happened, Roher’s crew captured now-viral footage of Navalny phoning one of his would-be assassins, a chemist who has since disappeared. Somewhat incredibly, the man describes the logistics of the poisoning to its victim, whom he mistakes for a superior in the Russian security services. The film also depicts Navalny’s return to Russia and his almost immediate detainment. At last year’s Academy Awards, Roher came onstage to accept the Oscar for best documentary feature with Navalny’s wife Yulia and children Dasha and Zakhar.

I recently spoke to Roher about his film, his relationship with Navalny and his family, and the purpose—and limitations—of documentary filmmaking.
—Alex Halberstadt, Senior Writer, Content and Editorial

Daniel Roher with Yulia and Alexei Navalny on the set of Navalny, 2021

Daniel Roher with Yulia and Alexei Navalny on the set of Navalny, 2021

Can you tell us how you got into filmmaking?

When I was a little boy, I was very interested in drawing and painting. And that became an interest in comic books and telling stories with pictures and drawings. And then that became an interest in telling stories with photographs and big images, so I got a little camcorder and made videos. And through that evolution, by the time I was 15 years old, I was like, “Oh, I want to be a film director. And I want to tell stories with movie cameras and music and all of these fun things.” And so it just became a question of figuring out how to do the impossible and make that into a career.

And how did you find your way to making documentaries?

I came to filmmaking not through journalism, like a lot of my documentary colleagues, but through watching films by Martin Scorsese, the Coen brothers, and Quentin Tarantino—films that I grew up on. And that’s what I wanted to do. But by the time I was 18 or 19, I was bumping up against the physical and technical limitations of making a fiction film. You have to have people and resources and get your 15 friends to come help you on a Saturday morning, which is hard to do. But if you make a documentary, you can just go do it.

This realization coincided with the technical revolution, when you could go make a movie with nothing but a backpack full of camera gear that wasn’t super expensive. Suddenly, the barrier to entry was $1,200 as opposed to $12,000. And I have always been interested in politics and history, so documentary filmmaking appealed to me. I think it was always my idea that at some point I would revisit fiction filmmaking. But first, I had to figure out how to sustain myself. And I wanted to be a grownup in the world and make some money and have a life. And that’s what I was focused on when I was 19, 20, 21.

The decisions that we made were made on the fly. It was less like a Renaissance painting and more like a Jackson Pollock painting.

Daniel Roher

When you set out to make a film about Navalny, did you have a preexisting interest in Russia?

I didn’t have a particular fascination with Russia. I didn’t speak Russian. Most of what I knew about it came from the Russian hockey players who played with the Toronto Maple Leafs. But I was interested in politics and history, and when I started working with [investigative reporter] Christo Grozev, I knew a little bit about what was going on in Russia. So when Grozev introduced me to Navalny, I certainly knew exactly who he was and understood his significance. Then it was just a question of, what are we going to do about it?

When you were shooting that film, were you thinking of other documentarians or other documentaries?

There were definitely some films that I had in mind. But you have to understand how quick the timeline was. Often when you’re planning a film, you sit around in your office for two months before you actually go shoot it. This was the opposite. This was like, “Okay, we’re shooting it.” And so the decisions that we made were made on the fly. It was less like a Renaissance painting and more like a Jackson Pollock painting. We were just going in real time. And what I identified immediately in terms of how I wanted to film the look and feel is that I wanted it to be like a spy movie. Of course there are so many documentaries that I love and respect. But I think that my biggest creative impulse was to make this a thriller.

There is a twist in your film that obviously you couldn’t have foreseen, when Navalny gets his would-be assassin to describe the process of poisoning him on the phone. It happens in front of your camera. Did the film turn out differently than how you envisioned it when you started shooting?

Absolutely. Given the tributaries that a film takes, especially a film like this, you never know how it’s going to turn out. There were twists and turns in this movie that I never could have dreamed of. That’s obviously a cliché, but in this case it’s accurate: I could never have foreseen the phone call, or the hundreds of thousands of protesters who would take to the streets after Navalny was arrested. Stylistically and aesthetically, I had a broad-stroke sense of what I wanted the movie to feel like. And that was something I could clearly articulate. I wanted the camera to be a witness to history, a fly on the wall. I wanted the viewer to feel what it was like to make the movie.

On the set of Navalny, 2021

On the set of Navalny, 2021

You were working with someone extraordinarily charismatic, who was also on the right side of history. As a filmmaker, were you ever worried that you might end up making a hagiography?

Well, our subject was a politician, and his political superpower was his ability to manipulate the news cycle and use social media. So you have just articulated what we feared most from the beginning, which was to make a fluff piece. But Navalny was the type of person who meant what he said. He let us ask any questions we wanted to. Some of them were obviously annoying to him, which he articulates in the film, but he was a good sport about it. And I really appreciated that. So after a while I wasn’t really afraid that it would become a hagiography because we had editorial control—or at least as much editorial control as you can have while making a documentary. And when it came to putting the film together, Alexei was in prison, and his staff watched cuts and certainly told us what they didn’t like, but we were not beholden to them. And that’s what mattered.

That was agreed on before the filming began?

At our first meeting. It was a prerequisite for starting the film.

So much of this film hinged on your relationship with Navalny himself but also with his family and staff. Can you talk about those relationships, and how they evolved?

My relationship with Alexei was quite warm. He was a very extroverted guy. He would chew your ear off on subjects he was passionate about, which were all sorts of different things. So he and I became friendly right away. When we were making the film, Navalny’s wife Yulia seemed indifferent; I think she thought that this was Alexei’s project. If she had to choose whether to be in this movie, she might have chosen not to be in it. But he wanted to do it, and she was being supportive.

Navalny’s staff was more adversarial. The primary staff member that I interacted with was Maria Pevchikh, who’s in the film. You have to remember that she is responsible for doing all those amazing YouTube investigations. In her own way, she is the filmmaker in the organization. And all of a sudden, this kid shows up in a sleepy German village, saying, “No, no, no, if we’re going to do this, I have to have editorial control. You guys don’t have editorial control in the slightest.” I think that was a bit of an affront to her, and that set the tone for the relationship.

From Making Navalny: a Graphic Novel, by Daniel Roher

From Making Navalny: a Graphic Novel, by Daniel Roher

Your film is haunted by the likelihood of danger and death. You address this directly in the film, and Navalny speaks to it, albeit somewhat reluctantly. Has the way you see the film changed since Navalny’s death?

I haven’t watched the film since Alexei died. I don’t know if I’m going to watch it ever again. Right now, it’s very painful. I’ve never felt grief like this in my life. I used to tell people that this is a funny movie, because Navalny was a really funny guy. I don’t think it’s a comedy anymore. I don’t think people are going to laugh when they watch it. But I think if Navalny were here, he would be bummed out by that. He would want it to be funny. But yes, in a broader sense, the legacy of the film has changed.

As far as you know, has your film ever been screened in Russia?

I don’t think it’s had a public screening. But it’s been widely distributed and pirated in Russia, which is something that I condone and encourage, because I want as many Russians to see it as possible. I know a lot of Russians, both in Russia and in exile, have seen it. That’s particularly special for me. When I was traveling with the film, I’d go to a film festival in Berlin or Vienna or Tel Aviv and Russian expats would come up and tell me how much the film meant to them and how meaningful it was to see their hero up on the screen.

Some people have criticized Navalny’s decision to return to Russia, given that he knew that it would almost certainly result in his imprisonment. Did his family accept his logic for returning?

Alexei had the full support of his family, and that support was a power source for him. It was like his fuel center. I don’t know that he would have been so bold and brave without the support of his family. It certainly would have been harder.

On the set of Navalny, 2021

On the set of Navalny, 2021

Do you think documentaries can and should affect broad political realities, or are they merely a document of particular people and events?

I’m pretty cynical about the notion of documentary film as a change agent. I always think about what Kurt Vonnegut said about the artists and intellectuals who came together against the Vietnam War in the ’60s: “And the power of this weapon turned out to be that of a custard pie, two feet in diameter, dropped from a stepladder six feet high. It made no fucking difference.”

I think that my film is now a document for history. I don’t know what it changed in the material world. Navalny is dead. You know, for a year I went around the world saying, “We need to share this movie widely, because it’ll be something that will keep Navalny’s name in the global consciousness. And hopefully, that’ll keep him alive.” Well, we now know that was absurd or at least a bit naïve. But the world will always be able to see Navalny and get to know him, and the film can help with that. That’s meaningful.

Can you share a favorite memory of Navalny?

He sent me a letter from prison. It was just after the Oscars; my wife and I got married two weeks later. What he essentially wrote was, “I’m so excited for you, you’re going to make such an amazing husband, and such an amazing father, too.” And now my wife and I have a little boy, Giddy, who’s six weeks old. And thinking about that letter often makes me cry, because I had this dream of taking my son to Moscow one day when President Navalny is inaugurated. And I would have gotten to say, “I was a tiny part of this history. Isn’t that cool?” But the history will be different now.

You know, in the Jewish tradition, you put a little stone on a grave to remember someone. Hopefully, one day, my son and wife and I will get to go to Moscow and lay a stone on Navalny’s grave.