War in Ukraine turns ‘Navalny’ into prequel to Putin’s goals

NEW YORK (AP) — When Christo Grozev, executive director of investigative collective Bellingcat, recently reviewed the new documentary “Navalny,” about imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, he was struck by how 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 discovered 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 denied it.) At the time, Grozev wondered if it might seem too far-fetched for Putin to go to such Bond villain extremes.

“When we conducted the survey in 2020, I struggled with: how am I going to convince the Russian public and the world that what I say is true – that the president of a great country who wants to be a moral leader in the world murdered people? Grozev said in a recent interview. “Now it doesn’t seem like such a big leap of faith.”

The war in Ukraine has quickly recast “Navalny,” which airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on CNN and CNN+ after a 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 Festival Favorite — the geopolitics that “Navalny” forcefully documents in real time has exploded into the open. The war in Ukraine, which US President Joe Biden says constitutes genocide, has exposed the dark horror of Putin’s policies to much of the world.

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

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

‘Navalny,’ which will air on HBO Max at a later date, was intimately filmed with the Russian opposition leader as he recovered from the Novichok attack in Germany with his family, and decided to return in Moscow despite the obvious risks. In between, Navalny pleads for an alternative to Putin while often comically sifting through the details of his impending death. In an incredible scene – perhaps the first to merge John le Carré and the Jerky Boys – Navalny calls out the Kremlin agents behind the attack while impersonating a Russian bureaucrat filing a report, leaking numerous details. With Roher’s flying cameras, a real political thriller unfolds featuring a very charismatic enemy of Putin.

“Releasing this film to the world will help the world understand that Vladimir Putin is not Russia and Russia is not Vladimir Putin,” said Roher, the Canadian filmmaker of “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band”. “What Alexei Navalny is an alternative vision of what the country could be.”

When Navalny landed in Moscow in early 2021, he was greeted by a crowd of supporters – and quickly detained. After a year in prison, he was sentenced last month to nine more years for fraud in a case the State Department condemned as a “sham decision.” On Twitter, Navalny was generally undeterred.

“9 years. Well, as the characters on my favorite TV show ‘The Wire’ used to say, ‘You only do two days. It’s the day you get in and the day you get out.

As the war in Ukraine drags on and war crimes are widely alleged against Russia, Navalny has spoken out bluntly against aggression. On Tuesday, he claimed that one of his distant relatives, Ilya Ivanovitch Navalny, was killed in a Ukrainian village. Navalny suggested he was targeted for his surname by Russian forces.

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

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

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

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

Pevchikh has not seen Navalny himself for over a year. At each premiere of the festival and at each screening, she stays with pleasure to see the documentary again.

“It’s good to see Alexei getting out of jail and looking and behaving as usual,” Pevchikh says. “It’s always nice to spend an hour and a half with your friend, even if it’s only in a movie.”

To help avoid potential sabotage by Russian agents, the companies behind “Navalny” kept release plans quiet until the last minute. The film was added to Sundance a few days before the start of the festival; its airing on CNN was announced about a week in advance. After the film started showing, Roher says it was portrayed as CIA in Russian state media. He considers showing the film in Russia to be his number one prerogative.

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

But as everything has changed in the three months since the premiere of “Navalny,” Roher says Navalny’s unwavering confidence remains intact.

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

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

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