“You couldn’t make this story up”: Navalny director Daniel Roher on the creation of his Oscar-winning documentary
On Sunday night, Toronto director Daniel Roher took home an Oscar for his film Navalny, which won best documentary at this year’s awards. A few weeks earlier, the film also snagged best documentary at the BAFTA awards, adding to its already long list of accolades and critical acclaim. Roher’s film is an investigative look into the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is currently in solitary confinement in Russia. In his acceptance speech, Roher dedicated the award to Navalny and other political prisoners across the globe.
Roher was in good company: several other Canadians also snagged Academy Awards this year, including Toronto’s Sarah Polley for best adapted screenplay for Women Talking, Adrien Morot for best makeup for The Whale and Brendan Fraser for best lead actor, also for The Whale.
We spoke with Roher about the recognition the film has received, the responsibility of delivering Navalny’s message and what the win means to him.
First of all: congratulations! How do you feel?
It’s a little weird. This phenomenal success is predicated on someone I care about—my friend is in solitary confinement for his outspoken criticism of Vladimir Putin’s brutal war. I’m delighted by the attention that these accolades are bringing to Alexei Navalny, his family and his plight. And for me personally, as a filmmaker, it’s a dream come true to have my work recognized on this level.
You’ve said that you’ve been waiting your entire life for the opportunity to make this film. What makes Navalny a dream subject?
His is an extraordinary story; you couldn’t make it up. It has everything. The stakes are high. The characters are charismatic, and they look like movie stars. The plot twists and turns in ways you never could have anticipated. It has a larger-than-life quality, but it’s all real. Urgent, high-stakes stories like this are the reason I got into filmmaking.
You had unprecedented access to the Russian opposition leader. What was your big pitch to convince him to be a part of the film?
When I first met with him, I understood that this was a person who needed no help getting his message out. He’s a very gifted media guy, with YouTube and Instagram channels that reach tens of millions of people. So my pitch was to encourage him to envision a future in which, as he’d already claimed, he was going to go back to Russia. Everyone knew that there was a high chance he’d be arrested if he went back. I pitched the film as a way to help keep his name in the global consciousness while he was in prison. Something that events, screenings and press could be anchored around. I think he understood that, unlike a YouTube video, a documentary film is on a time delay. It comes out a year or two after it’s shot. I thought that delayed timeline would be very valuable to him.
The storytelling style makes the viewer feel like they’re watching a thriller. Did you have that vision for the film from the start?
We knew that, by genre, it was a thriller. It was also thrilling to make the movie, and I think that our ambition was to play into the trope. Navalny says in the film, “Make it a thriller,” and so, abiding by his request, we introduced a meta-narrative into the film. Here I am, making a film about a politician, and not just any politician—a politician who has a brilliant mastery of the media. We as filmmakers had to acknowledge that dimension of the project. And so the question “Who’s directing whom?” is woven throughout the movie, and it begins with Navalny asking me to make it a thriller.
I was surprised by Navalny’s sense of humour despite what he’s been through. Was there anything about him that surprised you?
I was delighted by how curious Navalny is. He loves to learn new things, and he was very interested in learning about how filmmaking worked. That’s part of what made him such a compelling subject—he took the time to ask about what we were doing. Navalny is also just a great guy. He’s super cool. He’s easy to talk to and joke around with, and he doesn’t take himself too seriously. His outlook is that you can either laugh or cry, so you might as well make a joke. That spoke to me.
What was the most challenging part of putting it all together?
Figuring out how to open the movie. We have a very complex subject in Alexei Navalny, and we had to present a version of him that was layered and nuanced and that showed all of the controversy and complexity of his character. That was a tremendous challenge.
When you were directing and editing the film, what was the main thing you wanted viewers to get from it?
I wanted it to be a movie; I didn’t want people to sit around watching a documentary. I wanted the experience of watching this film to be similar to that of watching a James Bond or a Jason Bourne film. The propulsive real-world thriller aspect was at the top of my mind from the very beginning.
You’re broadcasting Navalny’s message for the world to hear. Does that feel like a huge responsibility?
It’s an awesome responsibility. But, at the end of the day, I’m a filmmaker. I make documentaries. And, by virtue of having made this film, I have been cast in a role I never saw for myself: global brand ambassador for the world’s foremost political prisoner. In that respect, I feel a little bit like a fish out of water. At the same time, I am in awe of Navalny and his struggle. What he’s enduring is devastating for all of the people who know and love him. It’s our job to make sure the world doesn’t forget about him.
Your film now has a global platform. What has the reception been like?
All of the accolades and honours that the film has received have increased its profile. The more people see the movie, the more people get to know Alexei Navalny and his family, and they become attuned to the vitality of his mission. What Navalny asks of the world is to not look away from authoritarianism and autocracy. We have to be brave when we are facing down the Putins of the world. That is a vital message, and if I can remind people of it, then that’s all I can ask for.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.