Putin and he-who-shall-not-be-named

MAN of the moment: Alexei Navalny, photographed in Moscow, 20 July 2019. Photo by Maxim ZMEYEV / AFP, courtesy of

CONTEMPORARY RUSSIA. A land under the thumb of a relentless dictator. A land, seemingly on a crash course that might take the whole world with it. But what if you had the opportunity to shift that crash course? What if that opportunity came with the ultimate price tag? Would you still take it? This is the true story of Alexei Navalny, a strong opponent to Putin in a documentary directed by Daniel Roher, which features on this year’s Encounters International South African Documentary Film Festival (23 June-3 July).

We live in cruel, nerve-wracking times. Times infused with ultra-modern technology and means of communication which have rapidly leap-frogged over anything that was commonplace five or ten years ago. The ability to gather all of these elements and meld them into a documentary that is not only prescient, but white hot to the touch, is astounding. And Navalny is a flawless product of a perfect production team.

The son of a man from Chernobyl, Navalny witnessed the horror of Russian doublespeak throughout his childhood; it armed him with a fierce understanding of the will to good. Evocative on several levels of the Kenyan documentary, Softie, this film takes you through Navalny’s ideas and personal arguments about Russian rulership.

These are no self-serving words or a gallery of talking heads and political rhetoric, however. Navalny, it seems, has been in the Kremlin’s cross-hairs for some time. He has earned the status of someone whose name shall not be mentioned. It’s a trope that evokes fiction writer JK Rowling’s evil protagonist Voldemort as it is one that reaches back into belief systems that honour the most powerful of deities. Say his name, and you’re doomed. Say his name, and you summon him. Or perhaps, say his name and he is real. But it’s also a trope rather ironically (or foolishly) caught in Putin’s own rhetoric. In real time. On Russian television.

In 2020 an attempt was made on Navalny’s life, using the nerve agent, Novichok, which is produced in a military establishment in central Russia. It was a news story which rocked the world and smacks of one of the stories underpinning Michael Schmidt’s book Death Flight, which touches on the apartheid government’s attempted assassination of Reverend Frank Chikane in 1989. The nerve agent is put into the victim’s underpants enabling it to enter his body. This way, it is undetected as a poison until it does its deathly deed. It’s high-level political crime.

But fiction it is not. With the help of forensic data journalism under the aegis of Chris Grozev’s company Bellingcat, the political powers of Europe and its medical technology, and a family that is not afraid to show its love and support for him, Navalny has lived to not only tell the tale, but investigate his own attempted murder. More than that, armed with the aliveness of social media platforms across the board, including YouTube and Tik-Tok, Navalny is a Russian presence that cannot be erased in contemporary thinking. Even if he is, in real life.

It’s a dangerous (pre-Ukraine war) yarn about the quiet ritual of sitting down before getting onto the road, of people with the courage to hold big dreams in their hearts and of the relentlessness of a psychopathic leader. One which, in the hands of storytellers would make Hollywood prick up its ears, but alas, it’s true. And it reaches into the frightening core of Franz Kakfa’s The Trial in its denouement.  

The mark of an exceptional documentary is seldom the prescience of the issue. Or the importance of the talking heads in the camera’s eye. Rather, it is the sexiness of the unfolding tale, which begs comparison with the heart-stopping narratives in the thriller genre. Not every documentary film-maker is up to this type of tightrope walking, which doesn’t compromise fact, but tells its tale in such a way that you, the watcher, are on the edge of your chair. Navalny ticks all of these boxes. And more. It gives hope.

Navalny is directed by Daniel Roher. Produced by Diane Becker, Shane Boris, Melanie Miller and Odessa Rae, it features creative input by Marius de Vries, Anna Drubish and Matt Robertson (music), Niki Waltl (cinematography) and Maya Hawke and Langdon Page (editing), it features on the Encounters International South African Documentary Film Festival which runs from 23 June until 3 July 2022, on-line, in Cape Town at the Labia Theatre and in Johannesburg at the Killarney Centre Cine and the Bioscope in Milpark.

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