NEW YORK — Hours after Russian authorities officially added Alexei Navalny to the National Register of Terrorists and Extremists, a new documentary about the imprisoned Russian opposition leader has premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
“Navalny” was dramatically added to the festival at the last minute and announced just the day before it premiered virtually Tuesday night at Sundance. Directed by Daniel Roher, the film was made with Navalny, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest critic, in late 2020 and early 2021 while recuperating in Germany after an assassination attempt with nerve agent poisoning.
Navalny said the Kremlin was responsible, as were US intelligence officials and the media who traced the operatives who attacked Navalny to Russia’s Federal Security Service. The nerve agent used in the attack, Novichok, is a Cold War relic that Russia has used against dissidents before. The Russian authorities have denied it.
“Navalny,” which HBO Max and CNN will distribute later this year, had been kept under wraps until earlier this month. While filming the film, his crew referred to it as the working title “Untitled LP9”. The producers said this alludes to a nickname they saw the Russian security agency use for Novichok: “Love Potion No. 9”.
The film’s premiere came smack in the middle of an inflection point for Russia. “Navalny” debuted as pressure mounted on Navalny, who has been imprisoned for more than a year, and tensions escalated over Russian troop buildups along Ukraine’s borders.
For Canadian filmmaker Roher, these circumstances make “Navalny” – the most publicized non-fiction close-up of a key political figure – urgent.
“The more headlines his name makes, the more magazine covers he makes, the more people this film reaches, the safer it will be,” Roher said in an interview Wednesday. “It will be harder for the regime to murder him in prison if he takes a place in the global conversation. I think that’s what our film is trying to do: make sure his name is front and center. »
When the film was first announced, Navalny posted on Instagram that he had hoped to attend the film’s premiere in a tuxedo and with a glass of champagne.
“But I will spend it – as usual – on boots, a prisoner’s uniform and with a cup of tea,” said Navalny, who is serving 2 and a half years in prison for breaching the terms of a suspended sentence resulting of a 2014 fraud. On Tuesday, the US State Department called Navalny’s designation “troubling” and a “new low” in government action against opposition figures.
Roher’s documentary, a real-life “Bourne” style thriller, leads up to Navalny’s arrest in January 2021 when he returned to Moscow to re-establish his political campaign to bring back democratic elections to Russia and overthrow Putin. Mass protests and a nationwide crackdown followed.
In the meantime, he and Bulgarian journalist Christo Grozev of digital forensic website Bellingcat have been working to uncover details of the nerve agent attack, including the people who carried it out. In the film’s most notable sequence, Navalny directly calls out several of his would-be attackers. During a phone prank, he poses as an angry superior and has the mission explained in detail.
“I remember sitting there and being like, ‘OK, we’ve got enough battery in the camera. We’re still driving. He’s focused. Hold him tight. Focus on the action, focus- you on the faces, focus on the eyes. Just keep filming,” Roher said. “I knew right away that was the most important thing I would film in my life.”
Roher wasn’t sure what it was about at the time, since it was in Russian, but he noticed Navalny’s head of investigation, Maria Pevchikh, gaped. Later, he learned what he had captured.
“We were running like chickens with their heads cut off. I was yelling at Odessa (Rae), the producer, to call the police and get house protection,” says Roher.
But the episode also crystallized something else for the filmmaker.
“These guys are jerks. As shown in the movie, they pick up a phone and uncover the whole plot to assassinate Navalny,” Roher said. “I’m probably super naive and have no idea what’s to come, especially as this movie proliferates around the world. But these guys don’t seem like the fastest dudes.
Navalny’s daughter, Daria, attended a screening of the film Tuesday night in Los Angeles. In a Q&A aired after the premiere, she said: “My dad is fine. He’s excited to see the movie, if he ever gets there.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP