December 29, 2022 – Alexi Navalny is a man who stands alone against the corrupt Russian government headed by Vladimir Putin. This documentary film is a testament to the incredible courage and determination of Navalny, and the sacrifices he is making to fight the Russian government.
This movie is more than just a portrait of Navalny, it is also a movie about journalism and how it shines a light into the dark places where politicians hide foul deeds. Navalny himself is a kind of social media journalist, using the internet to get information to people in Russia, where the government controls the media.
This movie focuses on Putin's 2020 attack on Navalny in Siberia, using Russian government agents to poison him with a Novichok nerve agent. This was not the first time Russian-developed Novichok had been used against Putin's enemies. In 2018, British double-agent Sergey Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in England with Novichok. Bulgarian arms dealer Emilian Gebrev, who supplied weapons to Ukraine, was also poisoned with Novichok, along with several Russian dissidents. Novichok is a known weapon used by Putin.
Navalny, along with his allies, friends and family wanted to find out who poisoned him. Aided by journalists, including the unconventional Christo Grozev, lead investigator with the Bellingcat Investigative Journalism group in the Netherlands, got some important information from unusual sources.
Grozev explains the Bellingcat approach in the movie: “In today's world of fake news we don't trust sources because we don't trust humans. We trust data.” According to the movie, it appears that Russia, a corrupt society with underpaid bureaucrats in charge of vast amounts of data, makes it easy to buy valuable data from information brokers on the “dark web.” Bellingcat can't pay for the data, but Grozev, who is independently wealthy, can, and does. In return, Russia has put Grozev on its wanted list as an alleged criminal and banned related news organizations, Bellingcat and The Insider, from operating in Russia.
With the aid of flight manifests bought on the Dark Web, and other data, Grozev and others, including Maria Pevchikh of Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) are able to trace the movements of Russian agents to a Russian chemical weapons lab. They also find out that some of those same agents have been staying close to Navalny. The journalists uncovered a whole poisoning operation in Russia and linked it to the poisonings of several other Russian dissidents. In return, Russia has labeled FBK as an extremist organization.
In one remarkable scene Navalny himself is seen talking to several of these Russian agents on the phone. He gets one of them to unwittingly admit that the agents were responsible for putting Novichok into Navalny's clothing, where it was absorbed into his skin. Navalny would have died except that he got prompt medical attention. He was able to recover at Charité hospital in Berlin.
Navalny decided to stay in Europe until he had fully recovered from the effects of the Novichok. He then returned to Russia, where he was promptly arrested and put into prison after a sham trial that was roundly condemned internationally. Navalny probably could have remained safe outside of Russia, but he chose to return, becoming another in a long line of journalists and activists to be jailed for telling the truth.
Director Daniel Roher (“Once Were Brothers”) gets right into the middle of this story, and has impressive access to Navalny, his organization and journalists like Grozev. What develops is not only a moving portrait of a brave opposition leader, but an inside look at the work of effective investigative journalists. This film rates an A.
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