Ukraine war recasts 'Navalny' as a prequel to Putin's aims

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Alexei Navalny appears in a scene from the documentary "Navalny." (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

NEW YORK – When Christo Grozev, executive director of the investigative collective Bellingcat, recently re-watched the new documentary “Navalny,” about the imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, he was struck by how much the film affected him differently since Vladimir Putin launched Russia's war in Ukraine.

“Navalny," directed by Daniel Roher, is a gripping portrait of the Russian dissident beginning with the 2020 poisoning that nearly killed him, and which Grozev traced directly to the Kremlin. Grozev uncovered that Navalny had been attacked with the nerve agent Novichok and that the alleged assassination attempt was the work of a Kremlin spy unit. (The Kremlin has denied it.) At the time, Grozev wondered if it would seem too far fetched that Putin would go to such Bond villain extremes.

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“When we did the investigation in 2020, I struggled with: How am I going to convince Russian audiences and the world that what I’m saying is true — that the president of a large country that wants to be a moral leader in the world has been assassinating people?" Grozev said in a recent interview. “Now, it doesn’t seem like it’s such a big leap of faith.”

The war in Ukraine has rapidly recast “Navalny,” which premieres 9 p.m. Sunday on CNN and CNN+ after a brief few days in theaters. Since Roher's film premiered in January at a virtual Sundance Film Festival — where it won both the documentary audience award and the festival favorite award — the geopolitics that “Navalny” documents bracingly in real time have exploded in the open. The Ukraine war, which U.S. President Joe Biden has said constitutes genocide, exposed the grim horror of Putin's politics to much of the world.

“Navalny” now plays like a prequel to Maria Pevchikh, head of the investigative unit for Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and an executive producer on the film. “It gives so much context to what’s happening now in Ukraine.

“The world could have and should have understood earlier. Putin could have been stopped in many points in history: after Crimea, after using chemical weapons, after running this assassination squad,” she said. “There have been so many awfully wrong things that we didn’t react strongly enough to.

“Navalny,” which will stream on HBO Max at a later date, was intimately filmed with the Russian opposition leader as he recuperated from the Novichok attack in Germany with his family, and resolved to return to Moscow despite the clear risks. In between, Navalny makes his case for an alternative to Putin while often comically sifting through the details of his near death. In one unbelievable scene — perhaps the first to ever fuse John le Carré and the Jerky Boys — Navalny calls Kremlin agents behind the attack while posing as a Russian bureaucrat filing a report, getting one to divulge plenty of details. With Roher's fly-on-the-wall cameras, a real-life political thriller unspools starring a very charismatic Putin foe.

“Getting this film out in the world will help the world understand that Vladimir Putin is not Russia and Russia is not Vladimir Putin,” says Roher, the Canadian filmmaker of “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band." “What Alexei Navalny is an alternate vision of what the country could be.”

When Navalny landed in Moscow in early 2021, he was greeted by throngs of supporters — and quickly detained. After a year in jail, he was sentenced last month to nine more years for fraud in a case that the State Department condemned as a “sham ruling.” On Twitter, Navalny was characteristically undeterred.

“9 years. Well, as the characters of my favorite TV series ‘The Wire’ used to say: ‘You only do two days. That’s the day you go in and the day you come out.'"

As the war in Ukraine has dragged on and war crimes have been widely alleged against Russia, Navalny has spoken bluntly against the assault. On Tuesday, he claimed a distant relative of his, Ilya Ivanovich Navalny, had been killed in a Ukrainian village. Navalny suggested he had been targeted for his last name by Russia forces.

“It is now everyone’s duty to make at least some, even the smallest contribution to stop this war and remove Putin from power,” said Navalny on Twitter. “Protest wherever and however you can. Agitate however you can and whomever you can. Inaction is the worst possible thing. And now its consequence is death.”

With such stakes, the role of “Navalny” has only intensified, the filmmakers say.

“People are fighting. Navalny is fighting,” says Pevchikh. “We are convinced that it’s never too late to try to stop Putin. To stop him today would be better than stopping him tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.”

In a crackdown on opposition activists and independent journalists, Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation was last year labeled an extremist organization by the Kremlin. Now operating outside Russia, the group has continued running investigations into government corruption, even with its leader behind bars. (In March, its researchers linked a superyacht docked in Italy to Putin.)

Pevchikh hasn't seen Navalny, himself, in more than a year. At every festival premiere and screening event, she happily stays to watch the documentary again.

“It’s nice to see Alexei out of prison, looking and behaving like he usually does," says Pevchikh. "It’s always nice to spend an hour and half with your friend, even if it’s just in a movie."

To help avoid potential sabotage from Russian operatives, the companies behind “Navalny” have kept release plans quiet until the last minute. The film was added to Sundance days before the festival began; its CNN broadcast was announced about a week beforehand. After the film first began screening Roher says he's been depicted as CIA in Russian state media. He calls getting the film seen in Russia his number one prerogative.

“I wouldn’t want Russians to go on bit torrent sites and try to find it and download it and share it with their friends and families, and maybe set up screenings in their communities and their homes,” says Roher. “I would never suggest that.”

But as much has changed in the three months since “Navalny” first premiered, Roher says that Navalny's unflinching confidence remains undimmed.

“When you work with Alexei and you spend enough time with the man, you can’t help but be optimistic,” says Roher. “This war that Putin is waging, the war crimes he’s committing, are perhaps the greatest political blunder ever. I would look to history. I would remind readers how quickly the Soviet Union fell. Things change overnight.”


Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at:

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