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#HotDocs22 ‘Navalny’ Review: An Inside Look at an Imperfect Russian Hero

CNN’s recent documentary, Navalny was a special presentation at this year’s HotDocs Film Festival. It’s an intimate look at Russian dissident and political figure Alexy Navalny. After surviving an assassination attempt, the 45-year-old lawyer is currently serving a jail sentence in Russia. Navalny has been on the Russian political scene for many years. This documentary represents a closer look at his life and works in recent years. 

First, allow me to start by saying that watching this documentary while Russia is actively invading Ukraine is an absolute trip. For so long, Putin has been either idolized or demonized to the point of making him a distant bogyman. This documentary dispels any doubt that he is a real person, who causes real, tangible harm to anyone he chooses. Real lives are impacted every day by his tyranny.

One standout of this documentary is the fact that Navalny is a genuinely funny man. His sense of humor is evident so often, even in moments of drama and crisis. He’s self-deprecating and willing to use that humor as a tool to speak truth to power. It’s an incredibly effective way to remove power from a tyrant hell-bent on consolidating influence. Perhaps the humor is also a way to cope with the crushing weight of standing against this tyranny on a daily basis. 

Relatedly, the Kremlin’s tactic to address Navalny is interesting. He’s treated like Voldemort. The fact that the Russian elite is even afraid to say his name is proof of what a threat Navalny is to the establishment. Putin’s continued refusal to even acknowledge Navalny by name is captured in actual press conferences and statements made on the record. It’s a telling window into how much of the threat Navalny poses to the Kremlin. 

The documentary makes clear the scope of the problem Russia has. Navalny is immensely popular and enjoys more support than is good for the status quo of the Kremlin. Navalny clearly knows the power of his popularity and harnesses it unashamedly. It’s clear he’s put himself in the perfect position with the Kremlin – if they kill him, he’ll be a martyr for the movement. Otherwise, he continues his work to expose the Kremlin’s corruption. 

Navalny truly embodies the Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed individuals can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has”. Navalny clearly understands this concept deeply. The entire documentary is a fantastic example of this ground-level organizing that builds a movement. Those around him are clearly invested in this vision, of bringing greater transparency to a government that’s known for its secrecy and lies.

The documentary makes clear that Navalny is far from perfect as a person and as the leader of a movement. He’s defensive and evasive about his willingness to speak with and to and be involved with members of far-right political groups. From the footage in the documentaries, it’s more than a flirtation with these groups. There’s a comfort level there that’s disconcerting, to say the least. The documentary unfortunately does not explore this any further.

Ultimately, Navalny is a touching, personal look at a man who is playing the long game in the quest to make his country better. The fact that Chornobyl served as a political awakening is a tribute to the deep love he has for his nation and its people. He’s an imperfect political figure, made stronger by the support of his family and those who share his vision for a better Russia. This story is not complete yet. There is more for Navalny left to do.

Navalny airs at the HotDocs Film Festival April 30, 2022.

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