CNN has scored its first Oscars win: “Navalny,” the harrowing film following Russian dissident and former presidential candidate Alexei Navalny, took the prize for documentary feature film at Sunday’s Academy Awards.
The documentary, directed by Daniel Roher, gained new relevance after Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The CNN Films/Warner Bros. documentary is a fly-on-the-wall account of the rousing populist who was once a presidential candidate — and posed such a threat to Putin that Navalny was poisoned in a botched assassination plot ordered by the Kremlin in 2020. Navalny was detained in January 2021 and currently is serving a nine-year sentence in a Russian gulag. He has spent much of the sentence in solitary confinement.
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Roher, in accepting the award, dedicated the Oscar win to Navalny and “to all political prisoners around the world”: “Alexei, the world has not forgotten your vital message to us all… We must not be afraid to oppose dictators and authoritarianism wherever it rears its head.”
Yulia Navalnaya, Navalny’s wife who appeared on stage with Roher, said, “My husband is in prison just for telling the truth. My husband is in prison just for defending democracy. Alexei, I am dreaming of the day when you will be free and our country will be free. Stay strong, my love.”
“Navalny” was commissioned by CNN Films and HBO Max and was originally scheduled to premiere simultaneously on CNN in North America and the (now defunct) CNN+ streaming service. After Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Warner Bros. Pictures acquired the movie and gave the doc a national theatrical release. It is currently available to stream on HBO Max.
At the 95th Academy Awards, “Navalny” beat out the four other nominees in the documentary feature film category: Shaunak Sen’s “All That Breathes,” about two brothers who run a bird hospital in Delhi; Laura Poitras’ “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” about photographer and activist Nan Goldin and her campaign to hold the Sackler family accountable for the opioid epidemic; Sara Dosa’s “Fire of Love,” following two French volcanologists; and Simon Lereng Wilmont’s “A House Made of Splinters,” about three children awaiting their fate in a temporary shelter in war-torn Eastern Ukraine.
Variety‘s Owen Gleiberman, in his review of “Navalny,” called it a “must-watch documentary that tells the inspiring, scary, and profoundly important story” of the “anti-Putin freedom fighter who has become the conscience of Russia.” The film previously won the BAFTA and Producers Guild Awards prizes for best documentary.
While Navalny was recovering from the assassination attempt, he and his team partnered with investigative journalism outlet Bellingcat and other international news organizations to investigate his attempted murder and find proof of the Kremlin’s involvement, which is detailed extensively in the film. Navalny had been poisoned with Novichok, a military-grade nerve agent that disappears from the body within hours and is nearly impossible to trace. (Putin has denied any involvement in the assassination attempt.)
In one of the film’s most astonishing scenes, Navalny — after Bellingcat journalist Christo Grozev has tracked down phone numbers for the members of the hit squad that tried to poison him — cold-calls each of them to ask why the assassination didn’t go as planned. After coming away empty the first few times, Navalny, impersonating a Russian FSB official, gets one of the men to spill the beans and confirm details of the plot.
Roher most recently directed “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band.” “Navalny” is produced by Odessa Rae of RaeFilm Studios, Diane Becker and Melanie Miller of Fishbowl Films, and Shane Boris of Cottage M. The documentary’s executive producers are Amy Entelis and Courtney Sexton of CNN Films, and Maria Pevchikh.
“’Navalny,’ first and foremost, is about the passion, drive and inspiring heroism of Alexei Navalny, who even as we celebrate this award continues to languish in a penal colony,” Amy Entelis, EVP, talent and content development for CNN Worldwide, said in a statement. “This is a monumental win to have the global storytelling of CNN honored with an Academy Award and a testament to the lasting impact of CNN Films.”
The film had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the audience award in the U.S. documentary competition and the fan-selected Festival Favorite Award.
CNN Films previously garnered an Oscars nomination for 2018 documentary film “RBG” about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The movie was a Storyville Films/CNN Films production, distributed by Magnolia Pictures and Participant Media.
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