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Impressive docu Navalny very briefly in the cinema. Russian opposition leader asks Putin henchmen: 'Why do you want to kill me?'

This enervating documentary about the near-successful poisoning of Russian activist and opposition leader Alexei Navalny premiered at the US Sundance festival on 25 January. So even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The run-up to that war is also not discussed in Navalny by Canadian documentary filmmaker Daniel Roher. Still, it may sound a bit wry, this is a film that should definitely not be missed now. Because the account of this assassination makes much clear about Putin's ruthless power politics. Who, it is almost ironic, consistently refuses to utter the name of his main opponent.

The facts are well known. But here we are all experiencing it up close, which is something else. On 20 August 2020, after visiting the city of Tomsk in Siberia, Navalny suddenly became deathly ill on the plane to Moscow. The pilot had the presence of mind to make a stopover in Omsk. After two days in the hospital there, permission was obtained to transfer Navalny to a hospital in Berlin for recovery. Investigations pointed towards the nerve agent Novichok, also previously used in attacks on other opponents of the Russian regime. A few months later, the recovered Navalny decided to return to Moscow, where he was immediately arrested. Supposedly because he had not fulfilled conditions attached to an earlier conviction. Well, he was in a coma for a while. Navalny is currently serving a long prison sentence.

No boring politics

At the time of the attack, Daniel Roher happens to be in Germany, and decides not to waste any grass on it. After being discharged from hospital, Navalny stays with his wife Yulia and daughter Dasha in a village in the Black Forest, to regain his strength. Roher seeks him out and is allowed to start filming immediately. As we see, Navalny urges him to make it an exciting story, not a boring political documentary.

Indeed, the documentary already acclaimed at several festivals - audience award at Movies That Matter - is touted as a thriller. And that's not far off. For Roher supplements the relatively subdued moments of the recovering Navalny not only with testimonies from his team, but also with an abundance of footage from other sources. Whereby Roher does not hesitate to put matching suspense music behind it.


Navalny besieged by the press on return to Moscow.

I was surprised to see how much was captured by all kinds of media outlets despite opposition from the Russian authorities. Starting with footage from a few years earlier, where we see the opposition leader addressing a hopeful crowd of Putin opponents and it becomes clear why this is the man on whom the protesters pinned their hopes. But also, for example, Yulia, when she is stopped by police in Omsk when she tries to visit her deathly ill husband in hospital. And later, the crackdown by security forces in Moscow against Navalny's fans. Gripping footage.

Indeed, there is little about Navalny's political ideas, which is a bit of a shame. The interview with him woven through the film mainly reveals that he is someone of succinct answers, a defiant smile, a sense of irony and undeniable charisma. Someone who plays the media effortlessly and likes to pull the strings himself. Really getting inside his head, despite all the apparent candour, is difficult.

Tracking perpetrators

An important role is played by investigative journalist Christo Grozev of Bellingcat, who manages to pinpoint figures behind the assassination attempt with fairly high certainty. And their link to Putin. Plus their phone numbers. The highlight is the scene in which Navalny, on a bad boyish whim, decides to call his assailants, and ask why they wanted to kill him. I won't give away how it ends, but it is quite baffling.

After the high fives comes the time for the next, more serious decision. Navalny takes the risk of going back. Prelude to a haunting conclusion. If you don't survive, what is your message, Roher wants to know. "Don't give up," Navalny replies with a hesitant smile.

Good to know Good to know

Navalny can be seen in 30 Dutch cinemas and film theatres from 5 to 11 May. After that, the film will be released on HBO Max.

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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