Daniel Roher is the Canadian filmmaker behind 2019′s Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, as well as the new documentary Navalny, which won two awards at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The film will be released by CNN and HBO Max later this year.
Alexey Navalny, the leader of the Russian opposition, was a few weeks out of a medically induced coma when he and I first met. Vladimir Putin had ordered his assassination with a Soviet-era nerve agent called Novichok. He miraculously survived the attempt on his life. Now, he was in protective custody in a little village in Germany, rehabilitating and regaining his strength.
The art of documentary filmmaking is the art of being in the right place at the right time. In November, 2020, I was sitting across from Navalny, trying to convince him why my team and I were the right people to make a film about him. Our first encounter went well. Navalny liked my pitch and even though (or because) I was best known for making a film about a rock star, we started shooting the next day. As we got to know one another, Navalny told me the story of the day he was poisoned.
He was on a domestic flight in Russia, flying from Siberia back to Moscow when his nervous system began to shut off. He collapsed on the plane. Decisive pilots made an emergency landing. When the ambulance rushed him to the hospital, they gave him a shot of atropine. These interventions saved his life.
Navalny granted my team and I full access to his staff and his family. We connected over our wonkish love of politics. He enjoyed hearing about my dreams to run for office back home in Canada. He understood that my film would maintain a critical eye toward him, and I believe he appreciated the integrity of this perspective.
I last saw Navalny on Jan. 17, 2021. I was filming with him and his wife Yulia as they were packing their bags the day he was defiantly and courageously flying back to Russia. Navalny was arrested as soon as he landed. He has been incarcerated ever since.
As the winter turned to spring, my team and I began editing the film. I was terrified when Navalny announced last March that he was going on a hunger strike because he wasn’t granted access to his own doctors. I recalled a conversation I had with one of his staff members a few months earlier when I asked if Navalny would ever go on a hunger strike. They said, “I hope not. He would die.” After about 25 days without eating, the prison authorities relented and Navalny ended his hunger strike.
Now, 10 months later, Navalny’s life is just as precarious. The world is watching with shock and horror as Russian forces bombard Ukraine. Putin’s forces march toward Kyiv and the world scrambles to respond to a war that not only threatens the lives of so many Ukrainian civilians, but also the peace and security of the entire world.
All eyes are now on Ukraine, but the world’s attention must also have space for Navalny, the most credible challenger to Putin’s dictatorial and now undeniably belligerent reign.
This week, Navalny is undergoing a sham trial on fabricated corruption charges. The trial, not-so suspiciously timed to take place the same week of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is receiving little media attention and Navalny risks slipping from global consciousness. Next week, Navalny will be found guilty of made up crimes that can extend his prison sentence to up to 20 years.
Moreover, he is in the custody of the same people who tried to murder him in August of 2020. With the world’s gaze firmly on Ukraine, his life is in peril.
The sanctions announced by the Western alliance this week were a good start, but I am afraid these efforts do not go far enough. Navalny and his allies have published a list of 35 oligarchs and kleptocrats close to Putin that are deserving of sanctions. This week, the Canadian government sanctioned nine names from this list. Navalny has made it very clear that Western leaders must sanction all 35 names immediately.
If you help empower Putin’s murderous thuggery, you don’t get to own Premier League football teams. You don’t get to anchor your yachts in Spain. You don’t get to have a penthouse apartment overlooking central park, and your children don’t get to live lavish lives in the West.
Soon, the film I made about Navalny will be available to the world. Until then, I will be watching in horror as Russian tanks steamroll Ukrainian territory. Today I am reminded of something Navalny once told me. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good people to do nothing. So don’t be inactive.”
I hope the Trudeau government, and the Western alliance, continues to heed this call to action. The future of Ukraine, a world order where state sovereignty is respected, and Alexey Navalny’s life, depends on it.
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