Toronto filmmaker Daniel Roher is currently in the “most hullabaloo-ish month you can imagine.” Sometimes when directors share such a sentiment, it’s just short-hand for something like, “I have to do a whole half-day of interviews in this finely appointed hotel room.” But Roher’s situation is different – after all, his new documentary, Navalny, might be the most geopolitically important film to be released this year. Or any year.
The doc, which made its surprise world premiere at this past January’s Sundance Film Festival before making its way to Toronto’s Hot Docs film fest this week, follows the rise of Alexey Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who happens to be Vladimir Putin’s No. 1 domestic enemy.
Featuring extensive interview footage with Navalny, which was shot just before the anti-corruption activist returned home to Russia, where he is now imprisoned, Roher’s film is a nerve-racking, pulse-pounding trip through the Putin regime. And that’s even before the film’s jaw-dropping sequence in which the director uncovers the identity of the Kremlin conspirators who tried to poison Navalny in 2020.
Ahead of the doc’s Hot Docs premiere April 30, Roher spoke with The Globe and Mail about politics, cinema and security protocols.
Over the past few weeks, you’ve been touring the film to Copenhagen, Los Angeles, The Hague, Seattle, New York, London. What are you hearing from those global power centres about this doc, and what is going on in Ukraine?
Without question, the response to this war is outright horror. You can’t be a person living in 2022 with a conscience and not see this for what it is: an egregious war being waged by Russia for no strategic purposes. What our film offers is something that contextualizes the moment. We could’ve renamed this the I Told You So Film: Alexey has been saying for years what could happen if no one holds these guys to account, and now we’re seeing the consequences of not listening.
The film could also be called The Perfect Timing Movie. How did a 28-year-old Toronto director – whose first film was about Robbie Robertson and The Band – get mixed up in the most fierce geopolitical story of our time?
Well, luck. When I finished Once Were Brothers, I had the sense that my career was going to take off, that doors would swing wide open. But it got slowed by the pandemic. I was sitting around in lockdown, trying to figure out my next move. I was working on a different film, when in September, 2020, I was invited to travel to Vienna to meet this Bulgarian journalist, this Sherlock Holmes character named Christo Grozev. That trip turned into a visit to Kyiv. Christo said he might have a lead for Navalny. A week and a half later, I met Alexey and it was now my job to convince him that not only was a documentary a good idea, but that it should be me who leads the project.
And your life has been a whirlwind since?
It has and it hasn’t. For a year, I was leading a double life, my own little spy movie, because no one else knew what I was doing outside of a few confidantes. I told everyone I was working on another rock ‘n’ roll movie. Some members of my family didn’t know, because of the dangerous nature of the work. Anyone who shares my last name would be susceptible to sabotage or interference by the Russian state. Since the film had its premiere, it’s been a whirlwind, yes. We made a decision to rush this out into the world instead of sticking to a release strategy that a film like this might adhere to.
Does that mean as a filmmaker you’re cutting corners you would normally take your time with?
More than anything, I was guided by the vital necessity of this film being released now. The spirit in which we made this film was like going to Camp Make-a-Movie. You don’t expect this kid from Toronto and relatively small producers from L.A. to come together to make this.
What was your relationship with Navalny like while filming?
We were shooting together for about six or eight weeks, but I want to be very careful about how I characterize it, because it’s important that people understand this is a filmmaker/subject relationship. I think we really respected each other. We bonded over our love of wonk-ish politics. He wanted to hear about the intricacies of Canadian fisheries.
Are your security protocols still in place? How cautiously can you live while on a worldwide junket promoting a movie?
I don’t live in fear, but I also probably don’t think about these things as much as I should. As the movie continues to proliferate throughout the world, the ire of the Kremlin might refocus on us. I’ve been featured in Russian state propaganda. They talk about us as if we’re CIA agents and the film is financed by the U.S. State Department. They’re cartoonish, laughable lies – except in Russia, that’s what people are consuming.
Are you optimistic that this film will make a difference in Navalny’s life?
One of the things I gleaned from my time with Alexey is that optimism is important in the face of utter darkness. It’s hard to be optimistic now, but I know that if Alexey were here, he’d remind us that Putin’s regime has never been on shakier ground. The walls are closing in on him. And because of that, Alexey’s life is in less risk than it would otherwise be. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but the regime’s upper echelons are so shambolic that an order to kill Navalny wouldn’t be fulfilled because so many elites in Russia don’t see the longevity of this regime. Remember that change in Russia can happen overnight.
Navalny screens April 30, May 2 and May 7 at the Hot Docs film festival in Toronto, and will stream across Canada for five days starting May 1 (hotdocs.ca); it will be available in general Canadian release later this year
This interview has been condensed and edited
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