Navalny's director Daniel Roher on his 'emotional pitch' to Alexei Navalny NPR's Steve Inskeep talks to film director Daniel Roher about his award winning documentary detailing the events following assassination attempt of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

'Navalny' director says Russian opposition leader's spirit is unbroken

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I'm Steve, with Leila and with the man who made a film about Alexei Navalny.


The Russian opposition leader?

INSKEEP: Yeah. Yeah. You know, one of the few remaining opponents of Vladimir Putin.

FADEL: Yeah, dangerous job.

INSKEEP: Which the filmmaker makes clear in the first question that he asks in this documentary.


DANIEL ROHER: If you are killed, if this does happen, what message do you leave behind to the Russian people?

ALEXEI NAVALNY: Oh, come on, Daniel. No. No way. It's like you're making movie for the case of my death.

INSKEEP: This filmmaker caught Navalny in one of his last moments of freedom before he vanished into a Russian prison.

FADEL: Incredible. I mean, I know this caught a lot of attention, I think, when it appeared on HBO Max, right?

INSKEEP: Yeah, I'd kind of missed it. But now it's back in theaters, so we called the man who made it.

And can you say your name, especially the last one, to make sure I don't screw it up - the pronunciation?

ROHER: My name - my last name is roar (ph), like a lion.

INSKEEP: Roar, not ro-rer (ph), but roar. Daniel Roher.

ROHER: That's right.


Daniel Roher is a distinctive person to interview. We found him on an active film set where he's helping out his wife, who's also a filmmaker. We heard noises of production in the background, and then one of our producers detected this scratching.

It did sound like...

ROHER: Is it this?

INSKEEP: It sounds like someone's writing, yeah.

ROHER: Oh, yeah. I'm painting. I'm painting.

INSKEEP: You are not. Are you seriously painting?

Turns out the director paints the way that some people doodle or I flip a pen, a way to burn off energy and stay on task. He did this while he was working with Navalny in Germany.

ROHER: You know, I was always drawing and painting when we were shooting the movie. And he would always ask me why I'm always sketching. And I'd said, well, Navalny, I have this condition called ADD, and I have trouble focusing. So if I'm able to draw and paint, it helps me focus. And he turns to Maria, his lieutenant, and he says, oh, how wonderful that we hired a director with special needs.

INSKEEP: A remark the filmmaker shrugs off.

ROHER: This speaks to Navalny's sense of humor. Navalny is a prankster. He's hilarious. He takes the piss out of everybody.

INSKEEP: Which was Navalny's attitude as he built a political organization and challenged Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, at election time.


NAVALNY: I was banned from everything. Television - banned. Newspapers - blacklisted. Rallies - forbidden.

INSKEEP: Yet his anti-corruption group drew widespread attention and, finally, an apparent response.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The plane makes an emergency landing in Siberia. Navalny then rushed to the hospital, where he was put on a ventilator. His spokeswoman saying Navalny was poisoned.

INSKEEP: Amid a worldwide uproar in 2020, Russia let him travel to Germany to recover from his exposure to a nerve agent. And that was when the filmmaker and painter Daniel Roher was able to find him. Roher filmed as Navalny resumed his opposition work from Germany. He produced a social media video. He showed a chart of Russian figures linked with his poisoning. And Navalny mouthed the refrain of a pop song.


OMC: (Singing) How bizarre. How bizarre. How bizarre.

INSKEEP: And then Navalny made prank calls to those suspects, one of whom apparently confessed.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: He spilled the whole story. This is unbelievable.

ROHER: I think what's important and what scholars and academics will write about is how Navalny weaponizes humor to further his political ambitions. People love watching his - what should be dry investigative anti-corruption videos. And it's because he is so entertaining and so charismatic.

INSKEEP: I feel that you're telling me something, though, about the nature of the man and also the business that he is or was in. He's a political figure. But, of course, he has no power. He holds no office. He has little chance of ever having an office. And so he needs to be a performer, a dramatist, an attention-getter.

ROHER: Yeah, I think political theater is a very important aspect of Navalny's brand.

INSKEEP: And despite the long odds, Roher came away believing Navalny could indeed prevail someday.

ROHER: And it seems to be just a part of Russian history that if you want to make your mark, you have to do your time in the gulag. Well, Navalny is putting in his time. He's forced to. And although that's very challenging for all of us, he's a man who asks of his supporters' optimism.

INSKEEP: Navalny faced questions about who some of those supporters were. In his earlier career, he was a nationalist who criticized immigration. Though he has since adopted more liberal stances and attracted more liberal supporters, he was photographed, at times, marching alongside extremist groups. And Amnesty International once withdrew its support for him before restoring it.

You ask him at one point, naturally, why do you sometimes associate with far-right nationalists in Russia? What did you think of his answer?

ROHER: His answer made me deeply uncomfortable. His essential answer was, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.


NAVALNY: I'm OK with that. And I consider it as my political superpower. I can talk to everyone. Anyway, well, they are citizen of Russian Federation. And if I want to fight Putin, if I want to be a leader of a country, I cannot just ignore the huge part of it.

INSKEEP: Navalny tells the filmmaker he once thought his growing support and fame would protect him. His poisoning showed otherwise. Yet as the filmmaker watched, he chose to leave Germany and return to Russia, where he is now in solitary confinement.

ROHER: I think it was a miscalculation. I think, you know - I spend a lot of time thinking about whether or not it was the right decision, whether or not he could have been more effective outside of Russia as a free man. But at the end of the day, what I understand is that that was the decision that Navalny had to make. That was between him and his higher power. And the rest of the world, all the commentators, all those who see the movie and say, why did he go back? - it's not for us to ask. It was his decision to make. And all I can say is that I miss him, and I really hope he survives this brutal ordeal he's currently enduring.

INSKEEP: You're telling me that in your understanding, he did not go back to be a martyr, to be killed. He went back believing that he could confront the regime and win.

ROHER: Without a doubt, 100%. And whether you agree with his politics or not, everyone can agree that that courage in the face of unspeakable evil is righteous. And it sort of has this quality - if not me, who? And if not now, when?

INSKEEP: Daniel Roher who directed the film "Navalny" while also painting, just as he did during our conversation.

I have one other thing. This is a really important question.

ROHER: Yeah.

INSKEEP: What are you painting?

ROHER: So, yeah - so it says NPR.

INSKEEP: His painting is now at His film is on HBO Max and back in theaters.

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