This is the most important documentary you’ll watch all year

Daisy Phillipson
Alexei Navalny in the 2022 documentary Navalny

In light of recent news, a 2022 documentary is making headlines once more, having previously won an Oscar for its poignant portrayal of one man’s battle against a powerful regime — here’s why it’s the most important documentary you’ll watch all year. 

Documentaries that play out in real-time often make for a compelling viewing experience — take West of Memphis, the 2012 film that culminated in the justified release of the West Memphis Three, who spent nearly two decades behind bars for a crime they didn’t commit. 

Seeing the legal battles, new suspects, and powerful testimonies play out on screen was akin to watching a gripping crime drama unfold, one that highlighted significant injustices in the US justice system. But today, the focus is on Russia, its complex socio-political landscape never failing to make headlines worldwide. 

Right now, the world is mourning the death of Alexei Navalny. If you want to learn more about the famed Vladimir Putin critic, there’s one documentary that is essential viewing. 

This is the most important documentary you’ll watch all year

Daniel Roher’s 2022 film Navalny is made all the more poignant following the news that on February 16, 2024, Putin critic and Russia’s opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, died in prison. The unfolding events surrounding the anti-corruption activist’s life and death underscore the critical importance of this documentary, shedding light on the challenges faced by those who dare to defy an authoritarian government. 

After being poisoned by novichok — a nerve agent that’s reportedly Putin’s favored method of assassination — in 2020, the film tracks Alexei’s recovery, his rising movement of political dissent, and his fearless campaign to confirm what happened to him in a bid to share it with his global audience and accelerate change. 

Despite being a marked man, Alexei was determined to get back to his homeland. Knowing this put him at immediate risk, he eerily foreshadowed his death. In a message to the Russian people, left in case the “unthinkable” happened, he says, “You’re not allowed to give up. If they decide to kill me, it means that we are incredibly strong. We need to utilize this power, to not give up, to remember we are a huge power that is being oppressed by these bad dudes.”

As soon as Alexei touched down on Russian soil in 2021, he was arrested — despite the thousands of pro-Navalny demonstrators who’d gathered at the airport to welcome him home. But rather than conveying a message of defeat, what the documentary highlights is the influence of the charismatic leader and everything he stood for. 

Though it might be obvious to say, he never gave up, even if it resulted in his demise — a level of bravery often saved for the pages of fantasy novels and thriller movies. A heart-wrenching scene in the doc shows the moment he’s ushered into his trial where, with a huge smile on his face, he proceeds to make a love heart with his hands towards his wife, Yulia Navalnaya.

With millions of global supporters, Alexei made clear it would be foolish for Putin and the Kremlin to finish the job, so to speak. Why? Because the world would be watching. But even now the unthinkable has happened, Alexei’s supporters refuse to be silenced. His spokesperson, Kira Yarmysh, commented: “Alexey Navalny was murdered. His death occurred on February 16 at 2:17pm local time, according to the official message to Alexey’s mother.

“An employee of the colony said that the body of Navalny is now in Salekhard. It was picked up by investigators from the IC. Now they are conducting ‘investigations’ with him. We demand that Alexey Navalny’s body be handed over to his family immediately.”

Ivan Zhdanov, the director of Alexei’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, added that Alexei’s lawyer and mother “were told that the cause of Navalny’s death was sudden death syndrome.”

Details about the death continue to emerge — according to an anonymous source who saw his body, there was “bruising.” But his widow, Yulia, believes he was poisoned by “another of Putin’s novichoks.”

For some, the death represents a somber outlook for political dissent in Russia. “Navalny’s demise underscores the fading presence of opposition voices in Russia, with street protests and activism that were once tolerated by President Vladimir Putin’s government now largely vanished,” said Ticker

But as the documentary shows us, Alexei was fearless in his quest — and he didn’t want anyone to give up. In his message to the Russian people, Alexei finished by saying: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. So don’t do nothing.” To live in a free world, his call to action is more essential than ever.

Certainly, there’s a long road ahead. But Alexei’s death has seen thousands of protesters take to the streets in Europe to denounce Putin. US President Joe Biden has called it “yet more proof of Putin’s brutality.” Most inspiring of all, though, is Yulia, who has vowed: “I will continue the work of Alexei Navalny. Continue to fight for our country. And I invite you to stand next to me.”

Weaved into the political message of Navalny is a deeply personal story. Alexei was a regular guy — he loved playing Call of Duty, he made TikToks with his daughter, and he and Yulia had countless in-jokes. 

In the wake of his death, the film serves as both a tribute to Alexei’s legacy and a call to action for individuals everywhere to stand up against tyranny and oppression. Through his words and actions, Alexei demonstrated the power of one individual to make a difference and the importance of speaking truth to power, even in the darkest of times. 

Navalny is available to stream on Max now, which you can sign up for here.

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