Interview'The erosion of democracy can happen in little nuanced ways'

Oscar-winning ‘Navalny’ director Daniel Roher urges world to resist toxic regimes

A week after the Academy Awards, the 29-year-old Jewish Canadian calls on Israelis to learn from the Russian dissident and not to ‘shy away from the fight against authoritarianism’

  • Daniel Roher, director of the 2023 Oscar-winning documentary 'Navalny.' (CNN films)
    Daniel Roher, director of the 2023 Oscar-winning documentary 'Navalny.' (CNN films)
  • Still from the 2023 Oscar-winning documentary 'Navalny.' (CNN films)
    Still from the 2023 Oscar-winning documentary 'Navalny.' (CNN films)
  • Still from the 2023 Oscar-winning documentary 'Navalny.' (CNN films)
    Still from the 2023 Oscar-winning documentary 'Navalny.' (CNN films)
  • Still from the 2023 Oscar-winning documentary 'Navalny.' (CNN films)
    Still from the 2023 Oscar-winning documentary 'Navalny.' (CNN films)
  • Still from the 2023 Oscar-winning documentary 'Navalny.' (CNN films)
    Still from the 2023 Oscar-winning documentary 'Navalny.' (CNN films)

Between Daniel Roher’s recent Oscar win and his commitment to spreading his anti-authoritarianism message, the director of the documentary “Navalny” has no time for small talk about his experience at the Oscars.

The 29-year-old Jewish Canadian 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, while 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 prank-calling the men he believes are behind his attempted murder. Unaware he’s 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 budding 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 to meet [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 entire world and that’s Navalny’s message, which is not to look away and shy away from the fight against authoritarianism, which I think is particularly relevant in Israel today.

Daniel Roher, director of the 2023 Oscar-winning documentary ‘Navalny.’ (CNN films)

Tens, hundreds of thousands of protesters are taking to the streets to protest the most extreme nationalistic and exclusionary government in Israeli history. Part of the reason I was motivated to talk to you is that I think what Navalny stands for and why he’s in prison right now speaks not just to the Russian context, but to countries all over the world, especially including Israel.

In your acceptance speech, you said Navalny has been in solitary confinement for the last five months because he spoke out against the war in Ukraine.

Of course, they don’t say that’s the reason. But there’s a pretty clear one-to-one between Navalny’s antiwar rhetoric and his being the only prisoner in the Russian penal system that’s in a perpetual state of 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 Jewishness 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 very much informs the type of films I’d like to make and the type of topics I’d like to cover. Certainly when it comes to the fight against authoritarianism and what Navalny represents, it was incredibly meaningful to me and close to my thoughts as we were making the movie.

Still from the 2023 Oscar-winning documentary ‘Navalny.’ (CNN films)

Navalny tells an anecdote in the film he calls “Moscow 4.” The message is that even dictators or supposedly sophisticated regimes make stupid mistakes [you can take advantage of]. It’s an inspiring message to those who are resisting.

Navalny’s message is that every individual has a responsibility when it comes to taking on a tyrant like Putin. He’s very clear on that. His dream is to install a democratic tradition in his country and that means talking to everyone and trying to engage everyone. Democracy’s hard and in order to build democracy you can’t just speak to the people you like. You have to speak to all people. That’s a very challenging message and people struggle with that, but I think that’s a cornerstone value of Alexei’s.

You previously told The Times of Israel that you have relatives in Israel. Have you been following what’s happening in Israel? How has making this film informed your worldview?

I follow Israeli politics very closely, both as someone interested in geopolitics but also as a Jewish person and someone who has family in Israel.

Of course, what’s unfolding in Israel now – the protesters, battling police, this controversial justice reform bill that Netanyahu’s trying to ram through – I think all of these things are themes and ideas that are well-represented in the Navalny documentary.

At the end of the day the audience Navalny’s speaking to is not just Russians, but to people all around the world. Wherever democracy is in peril, those are the places specifically that need to see this film.

Anti-government protesters hold a banner with a picture of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a rally against the judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv on March 18, 2023. (Jack Guez/AFP)

I think that’s particularly evident in Israel today. I was personally profoundly disappointed and upset when Netanyahu took back the reins of power. To me it’s like the day Trump was elected. Who he’s chosen to populate his cabinet with are very, very dangerous people who should not be in positions of power and influence. I applaud and support all of the protesters who are taking to the streets specifically to push back against the judicial reform bill, which is particularly dangerous and corrosive and should be stopped.

Do you feel that you’ve gleaned lessons about resisting authoritarianism? What might those lessons be?

I think in the context of my own life, it’s not taking anything for granted. It’s very easy to take the values and virtues that we [Canadians and Americans] grew up with for granted. It’s about not taking those things for granted and appreciating democracy and realizing that the erosion of democracy can happen in little, nuanced ways that often go unseen or unheard. And I think that everyone has 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 this deplorable right-wing government.

You’ve talked about Navalny weaponizing his humor as part of a resistance tactic.

I think one of Navalny’s greatest skills is his mastery of media and his ability to leverage specifically contemporary social media to further his political message: YouTube, Instagram, Twitter. Something that I really appreciate as a Jew is his ability to weaponize humor. Navalny really lives by this value, which I actually think is very Jewish, which is translating trauma and hardship into humor and into laughter. And I think that’s why so many of his supporters follow him. He’s not just doing these dry corruption investigations. He brings this comedic edge to it that is new and refreshing and engaging.

Still from the 2023 Oscar-winning documentary ‘Navalny.’ (CNN films)

I think part of the reason the film’s so successful is that it’s a comedy. You’re watching this very intense story about this guy, 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. It reminds me of my grandfather especially. You could laugh or cry, so you might as well laugh. I think that’s Navalny’s point of view.

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