‟Navalny” won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the 95th Academy Awards and is currently streaming on HBO Max.
The Sundance film festival doesn’t need much to have their films enter competition. The name of the film is usually a given. But in 2022’s US Documentary section, had a mysterious last-minute competitor entered under the codename of ‟Untitled LP9.” It was, in fact, ‟Navalny,” still steeped in secrecy even up to the point that director Daniel Roher aired his pre-recorded introduction.
In a statement on the Sundance blog, festival director Tabitha Jackson addressed the level of secrecy over ‟Navalny:” “We have known about this film for months and we haven’t said anything about it to allow the team the time to work on it the way they needed to.”
The documentary ostensibly follows Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in his quest to identify the men who poisoned him in August 2020. ‟Navalny” is a fly-on-the-wall documentary that is also a study of Navalny the man — a portrait of a leader intent on reform who will not be cowed by anything, including his own poisoning.
The post-premiere Q&A at the Sundance Film Festival released the tension that had built up from the day Navalny had consented to making the film back in 2020. Asked why they had used such a peculiar codename, one of the producer answered with laughter, “The FSB (Russia’s secret service) had a code name for [Konstantin] Kudryavtsev — ‘Love Potion No. 9’ — so that became our fake title.”
Kudryavtsev had played an unwitting part in ‟Navalny.” He was the target of a sting operation between CNN, Navalny and the data investigative journalism outlet Bellingcat. Amazingly, Navalny himself had called Kudryavtsev pretending to be a Kremlin higher-up wanting to know why the assassination didn’t go as planned.
Variety explains what happened in the phone call, quoting Bulgarian journalist hacker Christo Grozev. “Amazingly, one of the men — Konstantin Kudryavstev, a chemist who helped to orchestrate the operation — is fooled by Navalny’s ruse and admits, right over the phone (and on camera), to all of it. (“We did it just as planned, the way we rehearsed it many times. But in our profession, as you know, there are lots of unknowns and nuances.”)
“He’s basically confessing to state-sanctioned murder — and in doing so, he’s incriminating his boss, Vladimir Putin. One of Navalny’s associates claps her hand over her mouth in disbelief.”
READ MORE: ‘Navalny’ Review: A Must-See Documentary About the Anti-Putin Freedom Fighter Who Has Become the Conscience of Russia (Variety)
It was Grozev who had initially contacted Navalny with the idea of the documentary while he was still recuperating in Germany from the poisoning. Grozev had done his digging, as The Guardian described, “After Navalny’s poisoning, Grozev began looking for clues about who might have been behind the hit.
“Having bought telephone and flight records on the Russian dark web, he found a group of eight men from the FSB security services who appeared to have been following Navalny on trips across Russia for several years.”
Grozev contacted Navalny and journeyed to Germany to meet with him and share the information he had found. Director Roher came with him and kept filming. It turned out Navalny and his team had already been thinking about making a film, and a collaboration began.
READ MORE: ‘Everyone was freaking out’: Navalny novichok film made in secret premieres at Sundance (The Guardian)
Roher tells the story of when he first met Navalny, “Christo and I were crossing the Austria-Germany border and we drove to this cinematic sleepy town called St. Blasien in the Black Forest and I met Alexei. From the moment we met, I felt Alexei’s presence and energy in a very real way. He was disarming, his smile was warm, he was charming.
“He found us compelling enough to say, ‘Okay let’s start.’ Alexei — who’s a mastermind of media strategy and strategist — understood that if the story was this unfolding murder mystery, then we had to start right away.”
Over the next three-and-a-half months this film evolved into a very intimate portrait of one man, his family, his staff, and what they were willing to sacrifice for the values they believe in. All of the filming was done in secret, with a small crew and limited resources.
“It wasn’t until late December that we finally were able to re-emerge and strategize before Alexei’s return in January 2021.”
Navalny went back to Russia in January 2021 and, on the basis of trumped-up corruption charges, was immediately apprehended and thrown in jail, where he now faces a potential 20-year sentence.
Concluding clips of Navalny in handcuffs and behind bars, flashing peace signs to supporters, loved ones and cameras, imply that he hasn’t given up the fight for freedom, human rights, and justice in his homeland.
The Daily Beast calls the documentary “a thrilling nonfiction ride” and its depiction of Putin as a “cruel autocrat who’s willing to achieve his ends by any merciless means necessary.”
READ MORE: Inside Sundance’s Top-Secret Documentary on Putin Target Alexei Navalny (the Daily Beast)
The Guardian’s review realizes that the documentary had successfully hit its target. “’Navalny,’ a 98-minute documentary from Canadian director Daniel Roher, details in cogent, stressful, riveting fashion just how scared the Kremlin is of Navalny, arguably the biggest threat to Vladimir Putin’s power at home,” their conclusion is one of a story straight from the movies.
“Doughy, dopey agents who followed Navalny for three years and poisoned him on a filming trip to Siberia with the nerve agent novichok, a poison which essentially shuts down the body and then dissipates, making death appear to be from natural causes.”
But for Navalny, was it all worth it as he now sits in a Moscow prison. Roher is not hopeful, “I think he’s going to be in prison for a very long time. Whether it’s five years or 10 or 20 I’m not sure.
“But I don’t think he gets out until Putin is forced out and Putin is in fine shape. There’s no incentive for them to release him. He mortally offended them several times and then he went back.”
In addition to its 2022 Sundance win, ‟Navalny” scored the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature Film at the 95th Academy Awards Show, which was also the first win for production company CNN Films, according to ABC7News.com.
Learn about the making of other best documentary nominees on NAB Amplify:
‟A House Made of Splinters” was also nominated.