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Director of film 'Navalny' remembers his friend

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today, we're following news of the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. If he was, as is widely suspected, murdered, it would not be the first time an attempt was made on his life. In 2020, Navalny was poisoned with Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent from the Soviet era. He was transferred from Russia to Germany for treatment, and over his long recovery in Berlin, Navalny answered questions from the filmmaker Daniel Roher. Navalny was determined to return to Russia, which prompted this question on-camera from Roher.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANIEL ROHER: Alexei, if you are arrested and thrown in prison or the unthinkable happens and you're killed, what message do you leave behind to the Russian people?

ALEXEI NAVALNY: My message for the situation when I am killed is very simple - not give up.

ROHER: Do me a favor. Answer this one in Russian.

NAVALNY: (Speaking Russian).

KELLY: Listen, Navalny's saying. I have got something very obvious to tell you. You're not allowed to give up. If they decided to kill me, it means we are incredibly strong. We need to utilize this power to not give up, to remember we're a huge power that is being oppressed by these bad dudes. We don't realize how strong we actually are. The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. So don't be inactive, Navalny says.

Well, Daniel Roher directed the Academy Award-winning documentary based on his conversations with Navalny. It's titled simply "Navalny." Daniel Roher, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ROHER: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: How did you hear the news today?

ROHER: Well, I'm on the West Coast, and I'm used to being woken up in the middle of the night 'cause my wife and I have a little baby. And I thought my wife was waking me up because it was time for a diaper change or something like this. But instead, she told me the devastating news that Navalny had died. In spite of the clip you just played and all the things that, you know, Navalny and I talked about and all the things that I've thought about over the years since I've met him, I was shocked. And I'm now surprised that I was so shocked. It seems like something that was so possible for so long. And when I heard the news, I was just shocked.

KELLY: Take us back to those conversations. You and he were in Germany. You were catching him on film, and what had emerged were among the last moments of freedom before he disappeared or returned to Russia and then ultimately disappeared inside a Russian prison system.

ROHER: Quite literally, the last seconds of freedom - in our film, we depict Alexei being arrested and being taken away for what was his last moment of freedom. He crosses a literal border into prison, it seems. It was sort of devastating, in a way, watching him fly back to Russia, knowing the dangers that were lurking there. I'm not in a position to comment on it except to say that it was an incredibly bold decision, and it is just so tragic that this is the result.

KELLY: Did he believe - and I'm asking based on the many conversations you had with him - did he believe that he would pay with his life if he went back? Or did he think he could stand up to Vladimir Putin and win?

ROHER: Navalny was an incredibly optimistic, bright guy, and I was surprised at just how sure he was in himself and in his mission. I think he felt that the beautiful Russia of the future wasn't as far away as people thought, and he framed himself as one of the leaders who would usher in this beautiful Russia of the future. So I think he did not have a death wish. He did not want to perish for the cause. He expected that he would go to prison, but he would live. I'm left now feeling sort of, like, at a loss. Like, this is the end of the story? This is what happened?

But in fact, this is not the ending of the story. This is the beginning of a new chapter. Navalny is dead, yes, but his mission and his purpose lives on. He was fighting against corruption, and most importantly, he was fighting to end this brutal regime. And it is my hope that with the tragedy, sadness and anger of his murder comes a renewed action from both Russians and people around the world who are staring down at the rise of authoritarianism.

KELLY: If you could have put one more question to him, on camera or otherwise, what would it have been?

ROHER: You know, that's a good question, and it's tough for me to answer. But maybe I would ask him once again with greater clarity the question that everyone seemingly is at a loss for and doesn't know the answer to, which is why are you going back? Why do you want to do this? Why can't you be effective from the outside? He sort of brushed it off, I think, when I asked him that question. And in retrospect, it's very easy for me to say, I wish that I had pressed the point a little further and we had explored that line of questioning with greater clarity.

KELLY: You know, when you were there in Berlin with Navalny, his family was there, his wife, Yulia, their kids. Did you talk with them about Navalny's fight, how they felt about the decision to go back to Russia?

ROHER: I think it was easier for me to talk to Alexei about his decision. It almost seemed taboo to talk to Yulia. It's not something that she wanted to discuss with me, which I fully appreciate. I think largely what I witnessed was a family who was completely resolute in the sense of mission and completely supportive in their husband and father. And I think it would not be as easy for him to be brave if his family wasn't brave, and I think that that type of courage and bravery proliferated around all of Navalny's staff, many of his supporters and even, in our own little way, this little film team who, for a short time, was closely associated with Alexei and his mission.

KELLY: Have you stayed in touch with any of his team? Have you heard from them today?

ROHER: I haven't heard from his family today, but we have kept in touch. Yulia and Dasha tore up the dance floor at my wedding, and I have a great deal of love for them. And when the time is right, I look forward to seeing them again and giving Dasha and Yulia, Zakhar a big hug.

KELLY: Listening to you, it becomes obvious that the relationship you formed with Alexei Navalny was not just the subject of a movie you were making. He became a friend?

ROHER: Yeah. You know, I might have been at one time reticent to say that, call him a friend. You know, it's a tricky relationship. You know, he is a subject of my film. I knew him such a short time. But in those two months that we spent together, we spent a lot of time together. And, you know, there were many walks, and there were long drives and there were interviews.

And I'm remembering a letter that he sent to me just after the Oscars and just after my wedding that was so warm and sweet and congratulatory, and he was so seemingly proud of me. And I think that that's the type of letter a friend would send. And so, yeah, that's how I'm thinking of him, as my dear friend who I will miss terribly, whose courage and sort of resilience and bravery, I hope, resonates in my own life.

KELLY: Well, then, Daniel Roher, I will say I'm so sorry for the loss of your friend, and thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

ROHER: I appreciate it. Thank you very much.

KELLY: Daniel Roher directed the Academy Award-winning 2022 film "Navalny."

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

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.