The Israeli filmmaking industry is strong, according to Daniel Roher, the director of the Oscar-winning documentary, Navalny. Roher was in the country as a guest of the Jacobs Film Institute (JFI) in Tel Aviv to give workshops for local documentary filmmakers.
“Israel is this tiny little country that is a documentary superpower and it’s got so many amazing films and filmmakers,” he said. “I think specifically non-fiction [films] proliferate from Israel, and I think a lot of that has to do with the climate, the politics, the moral challenges. It’s always something that I’ve appreciated and recognized. Having the Navalny film at Docaviv last year was very special, and something that I really appreciated.”
Roher’s brilliant documentary tells the story of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is currently imprisoned on a variety of trumped-up charges. It combines interviews with Navalny, as well as with his associates and family, with news footage and video clips of his life, both before and after he was poisoned with the same nerve agent that has been used to poison other Russians.
Navalny is a kind of political rock star, who protested corruption in Vladimir Putin’s government, knowing that he could be imprisoned at any moment, and who inspires other Russians to take the very real risk of supporting him publicly.
Navalny’s weapons include his bravery and intelligence, but also his charisma and playfulness. In the documentary, he looks at very strong evidence of how the Kremlin was behind his poisoning and how little they tried to cover their tracks, which he made a video of, set to the pop tune, “How Bizarre.”
“Navalny’s greatest skill is his ability to understand social media, contemporary media, and digital media, and he has utilized Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok to speak to Russians in a way that leaves most political institutions in Russia completely dumbfounded and baffled,” said Roher, who has made several other acclaimed documentaries, among them Once Were Brothers, a look at Robbie Robertson and The Band.
In the documentary, Navalny has a good laugh when he learns how a data expert repeatedly hacked the email of a Russian official, who used the password Moscow1 and kept changing his password – to Moscow2 and so on, all the way to Moscow4.
“We have this idea that Russian spies are the best in the world and they have the best trade-craft, but they’re a bunch of bumbling idiots. But that’s what happens when you have a society that is predicated on corruption. It’s like a cancer; it rots from the inside and what you’re left with is a civil service that is an intelligence and security apparatus that is populated by a bunch of bumbling idiots.”
Roher also captured Navalny making calls to Russian officials and scientists he learned were involved in his poisoning (how they figure this out is so interesting and is one of the highlights of the film). Navalny finally – and very surprisingly – gets a scientist to go on record admitting that the Russian government poisoned him, all of which is filmed for the documentary.
When he started making the film, Roher did not anticipate he would document such a newsworthy moment. “When you’re making a film, you have no idea what it’s going to be. So often, you start shooting and you hope for the best. In the case of the Navalny film, we started filming and we wanted to see where it went. It’s just one of those extraordinary moments where history unfolds in front of your cameras and you’re just sitting there capturing it. It’s a documentary dream come true.”
You see how Navalny’s humor buoys him, although, since his imprisonment in 2021, he has been subject to such harsh conditions – prompting human rights organizations and Western governments to lobby for his release – that there is little to laugh about as he faces another decade or two behind bars.
“This is a brutal regime and Vladimir Putin wakes up in the morning and asks himself, among other things, how can I make Navalny’s life miserable.”
Asked to comment on the Jerusalem Film Festival’s decision to invite Oliver Stone, who has made documentaries lauding Putin, as a guest of honor at its upcoming festival, Roher called Stone a “nutcase” who is “Vladimir Putin’s best friend in Hollywood.”
What is the Jacobs Film Institute?
THE JACOBS Film Institute was started by American-born director/producer/writer Alan Jacobs, who made such films as Down for Life, Just One Night, and American Gun, to offer guidance, contacts, and funding to help move early-career filmmakers to the main stage.
Its Israel Film Incubator program brings successful filmmakers from abroad, such as Roher, to offer aspiring Israeli directors insights on how to bring their careers to the next level. It is also developing a program to offer grants to young filmmakers. Roher was very enthusiastic about the workshop he is taking part in.
“Anytime I have the ability to engage and share with other filmmakers is really special,” he said. “To talk to other documentarians is really exciting and it’s an opportunity to all learn; it’s like a group learning environment and so I’m delighted to be here.”
Asked whether Navalny’s story has something to teach Israelis, Roher, who has family in Israel, said, “Absolutely, without question. As democratic and judicial systems in Israel continue to be eroded by the extremist right-wing government, we see a country that is sliding with unfortunate philosophy toward an authoritarian position and an authoritarian rule.
“It’s not just Israel. The tides of authoritarianism have come in all over the world. We see it in the United States, but we certainly see it here, we see it now. And what Navalny teaches us and reminds us of, rather, is that we cannot be afraid. If we want to make a change in our country, if we don’t like the way things are going, it can be messy and challenging, but people have to act. People have to take to the streets.
“And I stand in absolute and total solidarity with the protesters who are unwilling to submit to this regime and to the wants and desires of this corrupt political elite.”
And saying that, he was off to get the day’s workshop started.