This Oscar-winning documentary highlights the transformative role of media in modern political opposition. Written by GOOD DOCS intern Emma Kuli.
“Behind me, you see a flow chart like in a movie,” Navalny narrates as he films himself with his phone, “But there’s one big difference. This isn’t a movie. It’s real life.”
Navalny follows Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny–from his campaign and poisoning, to his investigation into his own assasination attempt and eventual return to Russia.
The cinematography, score, and movielike turns make this documentary feel like a Hollywood film. The cinematic way that Navalny tells it’s story reinforces a major takeaway from the documentary–media has become a vital battlefront in the fight for public favor and political power.
Captured in cell phone footage, viral videos, news coverage, and even TikTok posts, Alexei Navalny’s story of resistance poses a major threat to the Kremlin’s image.
The film begins and ends with the interview question, “If you are killed, if this does happen, what message do you leave behind to the Russian people?” When first asked this question, Navalny protests against the idea of “a boring movie of memory.” The film cuts to one of its many stunning wideshots of a snowy Russian landscape.
Early on, the film shows Navalny’s campaign before his poisoning. “Putin? Thief!” Goes a Navalny campaign event’s call and repeat. In clips, a spiteful Vladmir Putin refusing to mention Alexei Navalny by name.
From the beginning, the media’s gaze is shown as a major component of Navanly’s campaign and ability to spread his message. Navalny describes how, as he gained fame, he felt more safe from potential harm, thinking that because he was a well-known figure “it would be problematic for them just to kill me.”
They still try to kill him. As it turns out, the assassination attempt is problematic for the Kremlin’s narrative. The story of Alexei Navalny’s attempted murder unfolds before the eyes of the world.
Rather than kept under wraps, Navalny’s poisoning is recorded by crowds of iPhones, quickly becoming a widely-covered, international story. In footage from the plane landing, we see Navalny rushed to the hospital after he was poisoned. Protesters crowd around the hospital where Navalny is held.
It is after Navalny recovers in a Berlin hospital, that he begins looking into his murder with a journalistic team.
The film’s deep dive into Navalny’s assassination attempt resembles a movie’s crime-scene investigation.
In Bellingcat journalist Christo Grozev’s words, Putin’s use of Novichok poison is “like leaving his signature on the crime scene.”
Once the journalistic team identifies the poison as Novichok, they zero in on the Signal Institute in Moscow, believing this facility is producing this military-grade chemical weaponry. Investigating the phone numbers connected to the Signal Institute, car registration databases, and travel overlap, the journalists create a list of suspects.
“We found a nest of wasps we didn’t know existed. It’s a domestic assassination machine on an industrial scale,” Grozev explains.
Once they uncover the scheme behind Navalny’s assassination attempt, the team turns to media outlets to spread the word of the murder plot.
“When you investigate your own murder...” reads the text on Navalny’s viral tiktok about the investigation.
With a publication on their investigation ready, the journalistic team devises a plan to “prank call” members of the assassination team.
For the first few calls, Navalny calls and introduces himself, “I was hoping you could tell me why you wanted to kill me?” The recipients hang up on him. The first call where Navalny impersonates an assistant in the assassination squad fails.
However, when Navalny calls Konstantin Kudryavstev, impersonating Maxim Ustinov, the unwitting chemist tells all. When he is asked “why did the Navalny operation fail,” Kudryavstev laments that he also wonders why it failed, accidentally revealing details on how Russian intelligence carried out the attack.
The incriminating call reinforces the journalists' investigative findings. The team posts the phone call footage to Youtube. With amazement, Navalny and him team watch the recorded call get 300,000 views in 20 minutes, 1 million views in one hour, and 7.7 mil views in 7 hours. The viral video even spurs an online trend of posing with blue underpants, a reference to where Kudryavstev said they placed the Novichock.
Putin’s team claims the phone call video is fake. Putin’s response repeatedly attempts to group Navalny with the CIA. “That patient in the Berlin clinic [...] this is no investigation, it's just a way of giving legal validation to material collected by US intelligence services,” Putin says in a press conference.
Navalny’s return to Russia is a major news story as well.
Large crowds gather arround the airport, awaiting Navalny's returning flight. Ominous music plays over camera footage and cell phone video of protesters’ and journalists’ arrests. What had resembled a spy thriller now looks hauntingly dystopian.
When Navalny’s plane diverts away from Moscow due to “technical issues,” rows of passengers on the plane record the announcement on their phones. “We were expecting this,” one passenger shouts out, and the plane laughs.
Navalny’s arrest is filmed. At passport control, his wife kisses him goodbye and officers take Navalny away.
The film’s closing title cards touch on the release of and more than 100 million views received by Navalny’s film Putin’s Palace: History if the World’s Biggest Bribe.
We see footage of the widespread protests that follow the film’s release and Navalny’s arrest. The documentary includes iPhone video of Navalny in prison, emaciated from his hunger strike.
An ending title card reports that Kudryavtsev remains missing.
In the film’s final scene, Navalny returns to the opening interview question. Navalny’s message of strength, this response spoken in Russian, ends the film on a note of rebellious hope.
Navalny itself continues to garner international attention, winning the 2023 Oscar for Documentary Feature Film. From award-winning cinema to cell phone videos, this film demonstrates the threat that globally connected media platforms and online viewership pose to authoritarian narratives and hegemonic power.