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A new documentary focuses on the near-fatal poisoning of Russian opposition leader

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

For years, Alexei Navalny has been a thorn in the side of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The new film "Navalny" focuses on likely the most dramatic episode of the opposition leader's life - his near-fatal poisoning from the nerve agent Novichok, allegedly at the hands of the Kremlin.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NAVALNY")

DANIEL ROHER: You might hate this, but I really want you to think about it. If you are killed, if this does happen, what message do you leave behind to the Russian people?

ALEXEI NAVALNY: Oh, come on, Daniel. No, no way. It's like you're making movie for the case of my death.

SCHMITZ: That's Alexei Navalny, and the man he's speaking to is Daniel Roher. He directs the film "Navalny." Welcome, Daniel.

ROHER: Thanks so much for having me, Rob.

SCHMITZ: You filmed Navalny's time in rural Germany, where he's recovering from the poisoning and rebuilding his strength. But in the film, we learn that's not all he's doing. Tell us about what he was working on.

ROHER: Well, when I met up with him, he was obviously in recovery. He was working on his own physiotherapy. He was working on a number of anti-corruption videos. But he was also engaged with this Bulgarian investigative journalist named Christo Grozev trying to uncover the insidious plot of who tried to murder him.

SCHMITZ: And the data journalism organization Bellingcat is approaching Navalny's team in your film. They say that they believe they've discovered who has tried to poison him. At first, Navalny's team is skeptical about how Bellingcat got this information, suspecting that they were working maybe with the CIA or MI6. Putin has accused Navalny and his group of being affiliated with foreign intelligence, so how did they put those fears to rest?

ROHER: Well, first and foremost, Christo Grozev had a long track record of uncovering Russian state crimes, specifically Russian state poisonings. In 2018, he solved the case of who poisoned Sergei Skripal in London. And so when he approached Alexei, I think Navalny was keen to listen because he understood that this was Christo's professional track record, was uncovering state poisonings and dealing with Russian state crime.

And when we met Alexei for the first time, the Navalny camp really almost interrogated Grozev, really made him open up his laptop, go through his emails, show his bank accounts, his bank statements. They wanted to make sure that this guy who had these extraordinary leads was not actually working for another nation's intelligence organization. They want to make sure he wasn't CIA or MI6 or something like this.

SCHMITZ: And the most riveting moment in your film, Daniel, comes as Navalny, posing as a Kremlin subordinate, calls a Russian chemist demanding to know why his assassination attempt failed. And for listeners, if you haven't seen it yet, this may feel like a bit of a spoiler. The chemist talks about what went wrong in great detail, to the shock of everyone in the room around Navalny, who does an amazing job of staying in character.

This is both a comical moment, but also a very dark one as Navalny and his team realize that this chemist will likely be killed for spilling the beans. And it should be noted here that this man has gone missing since this call was aired. What does this moment tell us about Navalny's enemies and about Navalny himself?

ROHER: Well, I think what the Kudryavtsev phone call's emblematic of is the ineptitude of the Russian Security Services. There's this idea that the Russians have the best spycraft, that their military is the - one of the best in the world, that these guys are serious, sophisticated operators. But what the phone call communicates is the utter incompetence of Putin's security organizations. But it absolutely was shocking to be in that room, for sure.

SCHMITZ: It was a remarkable moment. And your film isn't the first place that that aired. I mean, the Navalny team shared it widely with media organizations. Was there a moment when the Navalny team considered not releasing the footage, knowing what would likely happen to the chemist?

ROHER: Absolutely not. I think that the Navalny team understood that there might be an awkward moment asking me as the filmmaker and the film team to release the footage. We shot it with the intention of using it in our documentary. That's why we were filming that day.

We understood that there was a necessity to release it immediately, and I was a champion of that from the very beginning. I just - I told Navalny and his staff that of course they can - they must release it. And as a filmmaker, I understood that their efforts to weaponize this footage and to weaponize this phone call and show it to the world would inevitably thread itself back into my film.

SCHMITZ: Do we have any idea of what happened to that chemist?

ROHER: We believe Kudryavtsev's dead. We know that he disappeared - that's five months ago. And what our sources have told us is that he is gone. He was killed. There's no way to know for sure. We never will. When I heard that information, I was gutted. I was staggering around for a day or two.

Obviously, this guy is part of a murder squad. You know, he was working to try and kill people for their political opinions. But as a human being, you can't help but think of the family he left behind and realize the shocking real-world implications of the work I was doing that day, just thinking I was getting up for another day just to film another scene, and a man is likely dead because of it.

SCHMITZ: Yeah. Juxtaposing to another family that's featured in this film - Navalny's wife Yulia is incredibly strong and supportive of Alexei in - through the most stressful thing that you can imagine, but we never see her break down, not once. Was she really like that, or do you have that footage of her having a little more emotion and decide not to use it?

ROHER: Rob, I promise you, if we had footage of Yulia showing a little bit more emotion, that would 100% be in the film. But the reality was that woman is ironclad. Her character is strong. Her backbone is made of steel...

SCHMITZ: Wow.

ROHER: ...As is her husband's. The strength of that family is extraordinary. His children, his wife support the mission that he's on. And I can't imagine a world in which Yulia doesn't get emotional and doesn't express her emotions, but she does that privately.

SCHMITZ: At the end of the film, you asked Navalny to speak directly to Russians.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NAVALNY")

NAVALNY: (Speaking Russian).

SCHMITZ: And he's saying, "we don't realize how strong we are. The only necessity for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing, so do not be inactive."

You know, it's impossible to hear that and not think about what's going on in Ukraine right now. So when you were making this, you know, there was no way you could have known what kind of world that we are living in now. But how does the war influence the message of this film?

ROHER: The war reminds us of something that's very important. Vladimir Putin is not Russia, and Russia is not Vladimir Putin. What this film reminds the world is that there is another vision for what the country can be, a future for - where Russia can be free and democratic, where the Russian people can determine their own future. It's just going to take immense courage to achieve that vision of the future. And what Alexei is trying to do is be the moral leader of the nation and live by that, be the example, have the courage that will inspire others.

SCHMITZ: That's Daniel Roher, director of "Navalny." It's on CNN on demand now and HBO next month. Thanks for joining us, Daniel.

ROHER: Thank you so much, Rob.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.