Director Daniel Roher first thought about making Alexei Navalny the subject of his latest documentary, when he was in Vienna, Austria, with Christo Grosev, an investigative journalist.

Navalany began his presidential campaign against the Kremlin in 2016. The campaign didn't lead to Navalny securing the executive chair, but he continued to organize nationwide "anti-Putin" protests. On Aug. 20, 2020, Navalany was poisoned with Novichok, a chemical that disrupts the ability of nerves to send messages to organs. Russia has never confirmed the nerve agent exists.

Grosev, a Russia investigator with Bellingcat, was investigating who poisoned the opposition leader, and Roher said Grosev informed him he might have a lead on the culprit.

A week later, in November 2020, Roher went with Grosev to meet Navalny in Germany, where he was staying to recover from the poisoning. It was there that Roher said he made an "emotional pitch" to Navalny about a documentary on his recovery and eventual return to Russia.

"Here's a guy who needs no help getting his message out to the world. He has a gigantic media presence, essentially social media companies, the YouTube channel that reaches hundreds of millions of people," Roher told NPR.

"Why then does he need a film? And that's what I had to convince him of, and that's what I had to enlighten him towards."

Navalny wasn't buying it, Roher said. So, he tried again.

"The other thing I told him is that if we don't start filming now, you'll never get it again, what's happening is happening in real time, we should start immediately."

Roher is not unfamiliar with sparking up conversation in uncanny settings. NPR's Steve Inskeep spoke to Roher about "Navalny" — which won "best documentary" at this year's BAFTA — while he was in a decommissioned refrigerator at the Ritz Theater in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He was on the set of his wife Caroline Lindy's upcoming film.

"It's the quietest place I could find," Roher said. "But you might hear stuff outside."

Roher, who has Attention Deficit Disorder, usually carries and paints out of a watercolor set because it helps him focus. He continued his brushstrokes and shared the latest news about Navalny during his conversation with Inskeep.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. It includes some quotes from the interview with Roher that were not aired in the broadcast version.

Interview excerpts

What is it about Navalny that allows him to hold people's attention, whether he's on TikTok or in your documentary?

I think Navalny has a natural sort of God given charisma but more than that, he's just so funny. I think what's important and what scholars and academics will write about is how Navalny weaponizes humor to further his political ambitions. People love watching what should be dry investigative anti-corruption videos, and it's because he's so entertaining and so charismatic.

How does Navalny grow his base of support?

I know it seems impossible from the current landscape in the current history we're living through. But Navalny is the only politician in Russia other than the governing regime that has a national profile that every Russian knows. And it seems to be just a part of Russian history that if you want to make your mark, you have to do your time in the gulag. Well, Navalny is putting in his time, he's forced to. And although that's very challenging for all of us, he's a man who asks of his supporters optimism, whose worldview is geared and oriented towards optimism, who through two years of torture and prison, has not lost his singular sense of humor and his lightness and his spirit is unbroken. I think as long as his spirit is unbroken, hope for millions of Russians is also unbroken.

What do you think of Navalny's answer to your question about previously associating with far right nationalists?

His answer made me deeply uncomfortable. He essentially said, and people can watch the movie for themselves. But his essential answer was "the enemy of my enemy is my friend. How can I afford to alienate these crazy guys? Their goal is to get Putin out of power. And my goal is to get Putin out of power. Fine. We might as well join forces." Even though you know — this is me now, editorializing — their positions are deplorable.

What was your understanding of Navalny's thought process on returning to Russia?

Navalny went back with the expectation that he might have to sit in prison for ten years or five years. But he went back because he's a Russian politician and his people are the Russian people and he is deeply patriotic. And he saw it as his patriotic duty to go back and do whatever he could to get rid of this brutal, corrupt regime that is destroying his country. And whether you agree with his politics or not, everyone can agree that that courage in the face of unspeakable evil is righteous and it sort of has this quality, if not if not me. Who and if not now, when? Navalny was the man at the right time. And he was the last guy standing. He was the last meaningful oppositionist, the last meaningful opposition politician who went back to the country.

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I'm Steve, with Leila and with the man who made a film about Alexei Navalny.


The Russian opposition leader?

INSKEEP: Yeah. Yeah. You know, one of the few remaining opponents of Vladimir Putin.

FADEL: Yeah, dangerous job.

INSKEEP: Which the filmmaker makes clear in the first question that he asks in this documentary.


DANIEL ROHER: 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.

INSKEEP: This filmmaker caught Navalny in one of his last moments of freedom before he vanished into a Russian prison.

FADEL: Incredible. I mean, I know this caught a lot of attention, I think, when it appeared on HBO Max, right?

INSKEEP: Yeah, I'd kind of missed it. But now it's back in theaters, so we called the man who made it.

And can you say your name, especially the last one, to make sure I don't screw it up - the pronunciation?

ROHER: My name - my last name is roar (ph), like a lion.

INSKEEP: Roar, not ro-rer (ph), but roar. Daniel Roher.

ROHER: That's right.


Daniel Roher is a distinctive person to interview. We found him on an active film set where he's helping out his wife, who's also a filmmaker. We heard noises of production in the background, and then one of our producers detected this scratching.

It did sound like...

ROHER: Is it this?

INSKEEP: It sounds like someone's writing, yeah.

ROHER: Oh, yeah. I'm painting. I'm painting.

INSKEEP: You are not. Are you seriously painting?

Turns out the director paints the way that some people doodle or I flip a pen, a way to burn off energy and stay on task. He did this while he was working with Navalny in Germany.

ROHER: You know, I was always drawing and painting when we were shooting the movie. And he would always ask me why I'm always sketching. And I'd said, well, Navalny, I have this condition called ADD, and I have trouble focusing. So if I'm able to draw and paint, it helps me focus. And he turns to Maria, his lieutenant, and he says, oh, how wonderful that we hired a director with special needs.

INSKEEP: A remark the filmmaker shrugs off.

ROHER: This speaks to Navalny's sense of humor. Navalny is a prankster. He's hilarious. He takes the piss out of everybody.

INSKEEP: Which was Navalny's attitude as he built a political organization and challenged Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, at election time.


NAVALNY: I was banned from everything. Television - banned. Newspapers - blacklisted. Rallies - forbidden.

INSKEEP: Yet his anti-corruption group drew widespread attention and, finally, an apparent response.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The plane makes an emergency landing in Siberia. Navalny then rushed to the hospital, where he was put on a ventilator. His spokeswoman saying Navalny was poisoned.

INSKEEP: Amid a worldwide uproar in 2020, Russia let him travel to Germany to recover from his exposure to a nerve agent. And that was when the filmmaker and painter Daniel Roher was able to find him. Roher filmed as Navalny resumed his opposition work from Germany. He produced a social media video. He showed a chart of Russian figures linked with his poisoning. And Navalny mouthed the refrain of a pop song.


OMC: (Singing) How bizarre. How bizarre. How bizarre.

INSKEEP: And then Navalny made prank calls to those suspects, one of whom apparently confessed.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: He spilled the whole story. This is unbelievable.

ROHER: I think what's important and what scholars and academics will write about is how Navalny weaponizes humor to further his political ambitions. People love watching his - what should be dry investigative anti-corruption videos. And it's because he is so entertaining and so charismatic.

INSKEEP: I feel that you're telling me something, though, about the nature of the man and also the business that he is or was in. He's a political figure. But, of course, he has no power. He holds no office. He has little chance of ever having an office. And so he needs to be a performer, a dramatist, an attention-getter.

ROHER: Yeah, I think political theater is a very important aspect of Navalny's brand.

INSKEEP: And despite the long odds, Roher came away believing Navalny could indeed prevail someday.

ROHER: And it seems to be just a part of Russian history that if you want to make your mark, you have to do your time in the gulag. Well, Navalny is putting in his time. He's forced to. And although that's very challenging for all of us, he's a man who asks of his supporters' optimism.

INSKEEP: Navalny faced questions about who some of those supporters were. In his earlier career, he was a nationalist who criticized immigration. Though he has since adopted more liberal stances and attracted more liberal supporters, he was photographed, at times, marching alongside extremist groups. And Amnesty International once withdrew its support for him before restoring it.

You ask him at one point, naturally, why do you sometimes associate with far-right nationalists in Russia? What did you think of his answer?

ROHER: His answer made me deeply uncomfortable. His essential answer was, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.


NAVALNY: I'm OK with that. And I consider it as my political superpower. I can talk to everyone. Anyway, well, they are citizen of Russian Federation. And if I want to fight Putin, if I want to be a leader of a country, I cannot just ignore the huge part of it.

INSKEEP: Navalny tells the filmmaker he once thought his growing support and fame would protect him. His poisoning showed otherwise. Yet as the filmmaker watched, he chose to leave Germany and return to Russia, where he is now in solitary confinement.

ROHER: I think it was a miscalculation. I think, you know - I spend a lot of time thinking about whether or not it was the right decision, whether or not he could have been more effective outside of Russia as a free man. But at the end of the day, what I understand is that that was the decision that Navalny had to make. That was between him and his higher power. And the rest of the world, all the commentators, all those who see the movie and say, why did he go back? - it's not for us to ask. It was his decision to make. And all I can say is that I miss him, and I really hope he survives this brutal ordeal he's currently enduring.

INSKEEP: You're telling me that in your understanding, he did not go back to be a martyr, to be killed. He went back believing that he could confront the regime and win.

ROHER: Without a doubt, 100%. And whether you agree with his politics or not, everyone can agree that that courage in the face of unspeakable evil is righteous. And it sort of has this quality - if not me, who? And if not now, when?

INSKEEP: Daniel Roher who directed the film "Navalny" while also painting, just as he did during our conversation.

I have one other thing. This is a really important question.

ROHER: Yeah.

INSKEEP: What are you painting?

ROHER: So, yeah - so it says NPR.

INSKEEP: His painting is now at His film is on HBO Max and back in theaters. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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