Review by Sean Boelman
The film voted by audiences to be their overall favorite of the festival was not one of the many crowd-pleasers in the lineup, but the whistleblower documentary Navalny. And while it is far from the best movie of the slate (and not even the best documentary), Daniel Roher has made a film that is both thrilling and angering.
Shot as the events unfold, the movie follows a Russian activist who survives an assassination attempt with a lethal nerve agent during his fight against corruption in Moscow. It’s a truly wild story that unfolded quite recently, and so it has a feeling of timeliness and urgency that not many of the other documentaries that played in the U.S. Documentary Competition had.
The film does a really good job of making the audience sympathize with its subject. Roher really explores why there has been an entire movement of people to come out and support him in the face of the outright persecution he has faced. But beyond that, it is also easy to get behind him for what he stands for politically.
Roher joins the activist early on in his journey, before things start to heat up even more, and so the audience gets to watch everything as it plays out. The movie even bills itself as a thriller, and the label is certainly earned. Even though informed viewers will know where this story ends up, the twists and turns are fascinating.
The film mostly takes a fly-on-the-wall format, although there are some interviews sprinkled in to provide necessary context. The middle section of the movie turns into an investigative documentary of sorts, following Navalny and his team as they set out to find the truth behind what happened to him, and that is the most interesting portion.
What is most impressive about Roher’s film is the extraordinary access he was able to get to Navalny. The interviews in which Navalny is just on-camera speaking with the filmmaker about his story are fascinating, and even introduce some interesting questions about standing up in the face of opposition.
Obviously, this movie is all about freedom of speech and censorship, a topic which hits close to home to a lot of Americans these days. In a time in which there are so many threats to democracy, this film about someone who is fighting for freedom in one of the most oppressive places in the world is inspiring.
Navalny benefits from the profound access it has to its subject, who is an absolutely fascinating person, making for a documentary that is quite effective. It’s not particularly surprising, but it’s a well-made exposé of corruption and the people who are fighting back against it.
Navalny screened at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, which runs virtually from January 20-30.