Nawalny / Navalny

Director: Daniel Rober (USA). Year of Release: 2022

Alexei Navalny is on his way back to Russia following a spell in a Berlin hospital. The unseen director asks him if he expects he’ll be killed. “It’s like you’re making a movie for the case of my death,” he laughs “But let that be another movie. Movie number two. Let’s make a thriller of this film. And in case I’m murdered, then make a boring film of memory.”

Navalny is a complicated figure. A Russian lawyer and entrepreneur turned politician who has flirted with nationalism and neoliberalism, he has found himself the figurehead of the movement against Putin’s autocracy. Clearly Putin takes him as a serious threat – in August 2020, when flying from Siberia to Moscow, Navalny was poisoned and nearly died. It’s barely conceivable that Putin did not know about the murder attempt and certainly possible that he was directly involved.

For much of the time, Nawalny, the film, plays as a whodunnit, even if we do know the culprit in advance. Navalny’s team work with a Bellingcat journalist to try to find out who tried to kill their boss. They clone phones and access call records in a way which is not, strictly speaking, legal. Slowly, painstakingly, they discover that Navalny’s underwear was laced with Novichok, the Russian security services’ poison of choice. A thousand memes are born in this instance.

The way in which they get their most compelling evidence is slightly comical. Navalny rings up one of the chemical engineers suspected of manufacturing the poison. He says that he’s from the Kremlin checking what happened. The engineer tells him in full detail. This seems to be a better strategy than the one they start with – ringing agents of the state up and saying “I am Alexei Navalny. Why did you try to kill me?” The recipients of these phone calls hang up immediately.

Indeed, the whole thing is so – whatever the film equivalent of photogenic is – that you do start to wonder how much of this is done for the benefit of the cameras. Maybe everything did happen as depicted, but I’m sure the film only uses the best takes. And can it really be true that when the Russian security services were hacked they changed their password from Moscow1 to Moscow2? And when it happened again, they changed it to Moscow3?

This film is clearly Team Navalny. I have no problem with this in principle – good journalism should be partisan. But there seems to be a great reluctance of showing Nawalny as having any frailties at all. It is not just that he provides a viral TikTok video of himself lip synching to “How Bizarre”, he seems to be the only person in his team who knows how TikTok works. At one point he cancels a press meeting because he needs to send e-mails. Is no-one else in his campaign capable of even this?

Navalny clearly has a social media presence. He has around 3 million Twitter followers, 3½ million on Instagram and over 6 millions subscribers to his youtube channel. On a sense this popularity distances him from his followers, who watch on as the Great Man makes his performances. When Navalny returns to Russia, large crowds gather – and defy mass arrests. It is a great event, but one which the film describes more in terms of personality than politics.

When (Spoiler alert to anyone who’s not been following the international news for the past few years) Navalny is arrested, massive demonstrations erupted throughout Russia. There is some great footage of demonstrators pelting snowballs at the riot police. This mass uprising clearly had to do with much more than just one person – it was the culmination of a wave of repression and falling living standards. But here the suffering demonstrators are treated mainly as a stage army.

This film concentrates on Navalny the man – better said on Navalny the superman. You can take parts of it and use it to create an election video for a future presidential bid. He is asked to talk about what Russia would look like under Navalny, but his answers tend to just consist of bland stroke terms like “democracy”. At the beginning, there is a brief acknowledgement of his early flirtation with right wing nationalism, but this is quickly batted away to depict a flawless superhero.

I find this to be a pity, as in a way it ends up trivialising the threat of Putin, and not seriously addressing what is really needed to bring democracy to Russia. Instead, all hopes are put in “us” (and we all know who “we” are) installing a tall, handsome leader who spends his spare time using social media and playing video games and can speak good English. What could possibly go wrong?

Notwithstanding the uncritical hero worship, this is an intelligent film which shows that something is deeply rotten in the state of Russia. The fact that it can’t stop gazing starry eyed at Navalny doesn’t stop it being an incisive critique of Putin’s Russia.

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