Oscar-winning ‘Navalny’ director Daniel Roher urges world to resist toxic regimes
Between Daniel Roher’s recent Oscar win and his commitment to spreading his anti-authoritarian message, the director of the documentary “Navalny” doesn’t have time to make small talk about his experience at the Oscars.
The 29-year-old Canadian Jewish filmmaker recently directed the CNN documentary “Navalny,” about Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. On March 12, the film won the Oscar for best documentary feature.
The documentary focuses on the Russian dissident after he was poisoned in August 2020. Navalny blames Putin for an assassination attempt, and Putin has denied involvement. The film follows Bulgarian journalist Christo Grozev as he and Navalny’s team investigate who is behind the poisoning as Navalny recovers in Germany.
The film, which plays like a comedic thriller, shows Navalny making prank calls to the men he believes are behind his assassination attempt. Unaware that he is speaking to the man he helped poison, one of them confesses. Navalny returned to Russia in 2021 and has been in prison ever since.
On a short call from Los Angeles, Roher had a lot to say about the importance of resisting neo-authoritarianism around the world – including in Israel.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
The Times of Israel: Congratulations. How were the Oscars? Was there anyone you were excited to meet?
Daniel Roher: I got hit [the New Yorker cartoonist] Liza Donnelly, and we got to draw each other on the red carpet. That was a lot of fun. But otherwise, I was just grateful for the opportunity to deliver a powerful message in front of the whole world and that is Navalny’s message, not to look back and shy away from the fight against authoritarianism, which is very relevant in Israel I think. .
Thousands, thousands of protesters are taking to the streets to protest the most nationalist and exclusivist government in Israel’s history. Part of the reason I’m motivated to talk to you is that I think what Navalny stands for and why he’s in prison right now applies not only to the Russian context, but to countries around the world, especially Israel included .
In your acceptance speech, you said that Navalny has been in solitary confinement for the past five months because he spoke out against the war in Ukraine.
Of course, they don’t say that’s the reason. But there is a pretty clear parallel between Navalny’s anti-war rhetoric and being the only prisoner in Russia’s penal system who is in perpetual solitary confinement.
I’m not sure if it was intentional, but in an interview with NPR you quoted the Jewish sage Hillel, saying about Navalny’s resistance to Putin that he has the attitude “If not me, who? And if not now, when?” Does your Judaism inform your work in any way?
The social justice values of my brand of Judaism certainly inform my work. And my grandfather was an Auschwitz survivor. I think that aspect of our family’s history and the destruction of so many families really informs the kind of film I want to make and the kinds of topics I want to cover. Certainly when it came to the fight against authoritarianism and what Navalny represents, it was very meaningful to me and close to my thoughts when we were making the film.
Navalny tells a story in the film that he calls “Moscow 4.” The message is that even sophisticated dictators or regimes make stupid mistakes [you can take advantage of]. It is an encouraging message for those who are resisting.
Navalny’s message is that everyone has a responsibility when it comes to taking on a tyrant like Putin. He is very clear on that. His dream is to install a democratic tradition in his country and that means talking to everyone and trying to attract everyone. Democracy is difficult and to build democracy you cannot talk to the people you like. You have to talk to everyone. That’s a very challenging message and people struggle with that, but I think that’s a core value that Alexei has.
You previously told The Times of Israel that you have relatives in Israel. Are you following what is happening in Israel? How did making this film shape your worldview?
I follow Israeli politics closely, as someone who is interested in geopolitics but also as a Jew and as someone who has family in Israel.
Of course, what’s happening in Israel right now – the protesters, fighting with police, this controversial justice reform bill that Netanyahu is trying to push through – I think these are all good themes and ideas. -portrayed in the Navy documentary.
At the end of the day Navalny is not only speaking to Russians, but to people all over the world. Wherever democracy is at risk, those are precisely the places where this film needs to be seen.
I think that is especially visible in Israel today. I was personally very disappointed and upset when Netanyahu took back power. To me it’s like the day Trump was elected. The people he chooses to make his cabinet with are very dangerous people who should not be in positions of power and influence. I applaud and support all the protesters who are taking to the streets specifically to push back against the judicial reform bill, which is extremely dangerous and corrosive and should be stopped.
Do you feel you have learned lessons in resisting authoritarianism? What are those lessons?
I feel that, in the context of my own life, I am not taking anything for granted. It is very easy to take our values and talents for granted [Canadians and Americans] grew up with a secure ground. It means not taking those things into account and considering democracy and understanding that the erosion of democracy can happen in subtle ways that are often not seen or heard. And I think everyone needs to participate in civil discourse. There are small actions like voting, or bigger actions and interventions like taking to the streets in Tel Aviv to protest against this right-wing government.
You have talked about Navalny weaponizing his humor as part of a resistance tactic.
I think one of Navalny’s greatest skills is his mastery of the media and his ability to use contemporary social media specifically to promote his political message: YouTube, Instagram, Twitter. Something I really admire as a Jew is his ability to weaponize humor. Navalny really has this value, which I think is truly Jewish, which is turning trauma and hardship into humor and laughter. And I think that’s why so many of his supporters follow him. He’s not just doing these dry corruption investigations. It brings this comedic edge to it that’s new and exciting and engaging.
I think part of the reason the movie is so good is that it’s a comedy. You’re watching this guy’s very tough story, and it’s okay to laugh because he’s so funny, and he gives you that permission. It reminds me of the spirit of so many people I know who have been through hardship. He reminds me of my grandfather in particular. You could laugh or cry, so you might as well laugh. I think that is Navalny’s attitude.