‘Navalny’ Doc Director on the Set of Alexei Navalny – The Hollywood Reporter
Director Daniel Roher kept his latest documentary a secret long enough that he still forgets he can talk about it openly. “I have to say, oh okay, it’s not a state secret anymore,” he said.
The filmmaker is behind Navalny, the doc that was revealed Monday by the Sundance Film Festival to be the “mystery film,” as the festival described it, on this year’s virtual lineup. It follows Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader of the Russian government who was targeted in an assassination attempt in August 2020. After an emergency evacuation from Russia, Navalny received treatment in Germany during which he was revealed that he had been poisoned with a toxic nerve agent. The European Union later determined that the poisoning of Navalny “was only possible with the consent of the presidential executive office”. The Kremlin has long denied any involvement in the poisoning.
Roher, who screened his latest doc Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the band at the Toronto International Film Festival, met Navalny in November 2020, about three months after the political activist was poisoned. The director began filming the day after that first encounter with principal photography which lasted until Nalvny was imprisoned upon his return to Moscow in January, leaving Roher and his editors with nearly 500 hours of footage.
CNN Films and HBO Max have teamed up to acquire the film, with Navalny is set to air in North America on CNN and then be made available on HBO Max and CNN+ streaming services.
In his first interview about the film, Roher spoke to The Hollywood Reporter before the documentary debut at Sundance.
How did you first meet Alexei?
It’s kind of an epic story in itself. I found myself working on a project with a few colleagues and we were in Ukraine. And, oh surprise, that project didn’t work out and I found myself in Vienna, Austria, in limbo. It was containment. [I was] not sure what I would do, not sure there was a movie to be made, not sure about going back to Canada. And that’s when one of my colleagues, a journalist I worked with named Christo Grozev, said to me, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t go back to Ukraine at the moment, but there is something else. You know that guy from Navalny? I said, ‘Yeah, I know that guy from Navaly.’ And he said, ‘I think I got a lead that tried to poison him.’ As a documentarian, my ears perked up immediately, and a week later Christo and Odessa Rae, one of the film’s producers, and myself were sitting across from Alexei in this small room in the Black Forest.
Had they accepted the idea of making a documentary before this meeting?
They didn’t agree to do anything. What we understood coming into this meeting is that they were open to the idea of making a documentary and we were lucky to be there. We could get there in 12 hours by car. My understanding, and I had no idea when we went there, but I found out later that Alexei and one of his chief investigators, they were designing a documentary project. I later learned that 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. So they were open to the idea, they were open to the concept.
During this first conversation, did they tell you what they hoped to obtain from a documentary?
Yeah, that was hilarious. Alexei Navalny was like, ‘We want a great documentary film and we wanted to be like tiger king. To like tiger king. Let’s do something amazing like this. And I was like, uh, yeah that’s not really my style of filmmaking. Yeah. I think Navalny had in mind what it might be like to make a great documentary, but it was certainly different from my conception and my way of working. So this meeting from the beginning seemed and felt very collaborative, where they expressed their expectations and their hopes and their ambitions for a possible documentary film and I kind of expressed what I needed and how I worked.
How long did you tour with Navalny?
Basically, three months. That’s being a documentary filmmaker. When you fall into something like this, you have to leap into the unknown with every bit of energy, strength, and passion you have to offer. We had no idea how we would make this film. We had no idea how we were going to finance this film. We just knew we had to keep shooting.
What did you want to show in this film that the public did not see in the reports or on Navalny’s social networks?
From the start of this project, I must have been hyper aware that I was making a documentary about a politician who is not just a normal politician, but a politician who knows social media. A master of commanding the media and manipulating the media for his political goals and ambitions. And I had to be acutely aware of that while we were making this movie. And I think that struggle, that dialogue is present throughout the film. I wanted it to be very clear in the film that this was an objective documentary that we were making about him. At the end of the day, I think Alexei enjoyed being the subject of a documentary and you know, it’s an overrated cliché, but trust is an essential part of the relationship. I think we really understood each other.
What was the most shocking thing you think you captured during filming?
The most extraordinary moment for me filming the movie was when Alexei had the idea that he would call the members of the team that was responsible for his potential murder and basically prank them. [I thought] it might be an interesting setting of the movie and we’ll shoot it just to shoot it, but the professional spies, the Russian hit men who work for the government, aren’t morons. They’re not just going to tell some asshole about it on the phone. I don’t speak a word of Russian, so it’s essential to understand that during these phone calls I didn’t understand a word that was being spoken. But I understood everything. I see how these Russians have no emotions and their jaws are out of whack and they are in a state of disbelief. I just remember being like, okay, make sure we roll, keep the focus. It’s the most important thing you’ll ever film in your life. And then everyone panicked. We were running around like chickens with their heads cut off. I was like we were going to unload the footage now. Should we call the police? Do we need protection at home? it was this extraordinary moment that marked the start of an 18 or 20 hour shooting day.
Navalny posted the images of this phone call on his social networks. What do your images give viewers that they haven’t been able to see yet?
This footage has been viewed 35 million times and I think 34 million of those views have been viewed on Russian YouTube. I think a lot of people in the West who will be in this movie don’t know that story. For those who do, I think the most amazing part for members of our audience who may have seen it in the context of Alexei’s YouTube page is what comes after the call.
How did you find the distribution?
It’s a really scary movie. It’s a really scary story. I think that was scary for a lot of people. If you want to do business in Russia, it’s a radioactive film. You couldn’t get near it. We realized that we needed to have partners who both appreciate the magnitude of what we’re trying to accomplish, but aren’t afraid of the enterprise.
Have you ever felt unsafe during production?
I was paranoid. I remember there was a time when I came back to Canada for a few days in the middle of production while we were shooting in in-between principal photography. And I was in my little apartment in Toronto, and I was transferring images all day. And I went for a jog and I was five blocks from my apartment and I was like all the hard drives in my apartment right now. I relax to my back and think to myself that if the guys from the Russian Embassy were watching me and they knew I went for a run. And so I ran back. But in terms of personal safety and personal safety, it was really hard for me to be scared or scared when I’m standing next to the bravest man on earth.
Are you or a member of your team experiencing security issues?
We were very careful. We had a lot of safety protocols and we did our best to be very careful. I haven’t sent an email for a year. Everything we’ve done has been on Signal and encrypted messages. I think if we had any security issues, we might not know about it. But nothing indicates that this is the case. And I think that has a lot to do with the prudence of our practices.
You mentioned the possibility of the doc reaching a Western audience who may be less familiar with Alexei and what happened after he was poisoned. Did you have this audience in mind during production?
What answers this question is the fact that when Alexei gave his interview, he did so in English. What that indicates is that I think it was aimed at 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 am Canadian; I do not speak Russian. Just this reality of me making the film orients the film towards a Western audience.
I guess Alexei won’t be able to watch the documentary. But have you had any feedback from his team?
Navalny made an Instagram post a few weeks ago where, when he announced the film, he joked that the prison library didn’t have an HBO Max subscription. He won’t be able to see it for a long time, but everyone else on his team, the key roster of team members, has seen the documentary by this point, along with the family members. I think there are moments in the movie that are a little uncomfortable for some of the staff, but ultimately I think everyone felt it was a deeply humanizing portrayal.
Navalny is in prison now but, if his situation were to change, is this a story you would come back to?
Like, a sequel?
Yes, I guess it would be a sequel.
The sequel I want to do, which I may have to shoot in 10 or 15 or 20 or 25 or 30 years, is the story of a single day in Russia where there is an inauguration of President Navalny.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.