The first time I met director Daniel Roher, he was having a conversation with a quite serious-looking Woody Harrelson. This is because Woody, as well as a small film festival audience in Idaho, had just seen Roher’s documentary Navalny. Focused on Russian opposition leader and Vladimir Putin critic Alexei Navalny, it takes us into his life leading up to when he was poisoned in August of 2020. It then tracks Navalny's recovery over the next five months, culminating in his eventual return to Russia where he was arrested and has been held since.
Sundance showed the documentary as their “secret” film this year, where it then won the documentary audience award and the festival favorite award. It will now be shown on the opening night of the Seattle International Film Festival on April 14, with Roher and producers Melanie Miller, Diane Becker, Shane Boris, and Odessa Rae in attendance.
When talking with the 28-years-old Roher about his film, it's quickly clear that he speaks honestly and bluntly about his experience making it. He also does so while sketching a portrait of me nine times in his notebook, all while keeping up a conversation without missing a beat.
In our conversation in early April, we discussed his approach to asking tough questions, whether he believes Navalny will see a life outside of a jail cell, and what he sees as the future for Russia.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
HUTCHINSON: I wanted to start by asking you about the documentary you made before this: Once Were Brothers. I had watched it and, even as it was very different in subject matter, wanted to ask if there was anything you had taken from that that you were able to put into practice with Navalny? Or did you have to rethink everything you had learned about documentary filmmaking?
ROHER: I didn’t have to rethink everything I had learned about documentary filmmaking, but each film is different. I think, as a documentary maker, you have to learn to make each film. Having said that, there are certain skill sets and techniques that carry over from film to film. Storytelling is storytelling. Structuring a story is important from one film to the next. But I can’t think of two polar opposite, completely different films to make. The challenge of that is completely exciting and part of the reason why I really love filmmaking.
Because you will always have something new as a challenge for yourself.
Absolutely. I mean, at the end of the day, documentary filmmaking is an exercise in creativity and an exercise in curiosity. What motivates me is an insatiable curiosity. That’s why the work is so exciting.
Did your experience making this film change you or your relationship with your work?
The experience of making Navalny was extraordinarily humbling. You can’t help but be changed by an experience like this. I think it will take me years of reflection and study of myself and my environment and my notebooks and this experience to fully understand how it impacted my worldview and who I am. What I can say, for sure, is that I really think this film is the greatest honor of my life. The opportunity to make a film like this, to make a work of art like this, is truly a privilege and an honor. I have a lot of gratitude for having had this chance.
How much time did you have to pack up and go to where Navalny was to begin this process?
We had about six days to prepare to go and make the trip to actually meet him. I just spent those six days preparing as best as I could.
What did you do to prepare?
I just read as much as I could. I became a little bit more conversationally fluent in contemporary Russian politics and the state of the democratic movement in Russia and Putin’s regime and certainly on Alexei Navalny himself. I was reading profiles and articles, things like that, just so I could sit across the table from him with a shred of credibility. I wanted to be at least fluent in his language, so to speak.
I wanted to ask this early on because it was something you pose as a preliminary question in the documentary itself. You asked Navalny about his connections with far-right, ethno-nationalist movements. What did you think of his response?
Well, I think Alexei exists in a different political context and it was very important in this film to litigate and examine his political background, and his political philosophies in a small way. What he really speaks to, and I think what is really important, is essentially this thought of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Although my personal belief is that that is an unfortunate position to have to take, it is refreshingly honest and I understand it.
On the reception to the film, especially in relation to festivals: Oftentimes, the gems of film festivals are documentaries, which people can spend years working on. What's it like finally hearing from people?
I think what you just spoke to is emblematic of all works of art. The anxiety and the struggle of being an artist is to make things without knowing how the world will receive them. It is about having the courage to make them for yourself in spite of what the world may or may not think. When it comes to making a film like this, you have no idea how the world will perceive it. We won two awards at Sundance. That was beyond my wildest dreams; that was extraordinary. What’s happening in the world right now is remarkable. We made a film that is the ultimate anti-Putin movie, and Putin in the last six weeks has firmly established himself as the most evil, vile, hated man on the face of the Earth. To make a piece of art that contextualizes the moment in a really engaging and meaningful way that people can access is astounding.
The documentary establishes what Putin is capable of doing and shows the detail that went into how he would be willing to do anything to take someone out. Do you ever have any concerns about what impact that could have on you?
Well, first and foremost, I can’t go to Russia. So that’s that. But do I think they’re going to do anything to me? No. Absolutely not. I’m not worried about that.
Do you keep in touch with Navalny or his family in any capacity?
I keep in touch with his staff. We try to be very respectful of the family and their privacy so we make sure the staff facilitates all of the interactions.
I wanted to ask about that idea of privacy. How do you find the balance of wanting to ask an important question that may be difficult for someone to respond to?
Well, that’s a good question. It’s funny—I have no boundaries professionally and personally. I don’t like to have surface-level conversations. At the best of times, I just go straight for the jugular and am just very curious about the world. I think my conversational style and the way I communicate is really predicated on this curiosity which is foundational in my worldview. So I have no problem asking probing questions that sometimes make people uncomfortable. Of course in my work but also just like in my life and it has gotten me into trouble. There are people who are really annoyed by that who don’t like it who write me off and think I’m an asshole. That’s unfortunate, but I am who I am. I think asking questions is critically important to who I am.
When it comes to moments where people have dismissed you as an asshole, was that something you had to navigate in the context of this documentary and work through?
If you annoy somebody because you ask them too many obnoxious questions, I certainly feel bad about that. But in the context of the work, there were certainly moments when I have to make the subject uncomfortable. I had to ask them about things that they may not want to talk about. That’s just part of the job. It’s about putting on your grown-up shoes and doing it. That happened a couple of times in this film.
What were those couple of times?
Well, for example, the film opens with me asking Navalny a question and the question I ask him is ‘what message do you have for the Russian people in the case that you’re killed?’ It’s very uncomfortable to talk with someone that you’re working with about their own mortality and about their potential death. But I think it was important because we understood the historical context of which we were working in and the historic nature of the subject.
There is also a scene in the documentary where you are capturing the moment where Navalny calls one of the people that attempted to kill him, who then confesses to it.
Everyone around you is reacting with amazement and shock. He is obviously having to stay in character, but what was your mind like at that moment?
My reaction in that moment was making sure there is battery in the camera, making sure you keep it steady, and making sure it’s in focus.
That’s good because that would have been the ultimate devastation if you missed it.
Can you imagine? I understood as soon as we were finished that this was the most extraordinary thing I would film in my life. I just knew and I’m glad that we got it. Niki Waltl, the director of photography, and I, thankfully we were on that morning. We did a fine job.
What do you see as the future in Russia for people like Navalny?
In regards to the future of the Russian opposition, I think we’re at a turning point. The last six weeks we’ve crossed into another Rubicon. Putin’s war in Ukraine has changed the calculus and exposed him fully and truly for the tyrant that he is. Vladimir Putin will go down in history as one of the evil men of the 21st century who was made in the mold of the evil men of the 20th century.
I think that the future of Russia is predicated on the future of the Russian people. If the Russian people want to live in a country that is free and democratic where rule of law and justice are foundational values that are real and true, it’s up to those individuals to have agency to change the future. This is what Alexei has been trumpeting and speaking to, a beautiful Russia of the future.
Do you think Navalny will be alive to see that beautiful future?
I do. I hope to see the day that Alexei Navalny is inaugurated as the first democratically elected President of the Russian Federation.
What do you think it will take for him to get there?
A lot of patience, resilience, and his ironclad spirit and resolve. The one thing that I would like to end on is that, for anyone who sees this movie, it’s really important to me and the Navalny family that they tell as many people about it as possible. Alexei is in a very dangerous position right now. He is in peril. He is in the custody of the same men that tried to murder him. The way that we keep him safe, the way that we keep him alive, is by keeping his name in the national, international, global ethos and conversation. Alexei Navalny must be a name that is synonymous with injustice and being a political prisoner. It is only then, if his name remains in the headlines and the consciousness of the globe, that he has a chance of surviving this brutal regime and this terrible ordeal.
You can see Navalny on the opening night of SIFF at the Paramount Theatre on April 14.