The New Navalny Documentary Will Make You Feel Better About the World

‘Navalny’ on the jailed Russian opposition leader, and Putin's top enemy, offers much needed hope and inspiration, as do ‘The Janes’ and ‘We Feed People’

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Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny appearing on a screen during his unsuccessful appeal hearing in Moscow last week.
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny appearing on a screen during his unsuccessful appeal hearing in Moscow last week.Credit: Alexander Zemlianichenko /AP
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

It’s not often I have to disagree with the Queen of Rock ’n’ Roll but, sorry, we do need another hero.

While Tina Turner was absolutely right to boom that we don’t need another hero in the form of Mel Gibson, I’d say it’s pretty clear that the world is crying out for heroes right now: policemen who’ll actually rush into a school during a mass shooting rather than loiter outside; politicians who see themselves as servants of the people rather than acting as self-serving creeps; billionaires who want to leave the planet in better shape rather than just leave it in their little spaceships.

There’s a reason Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy achieved hero status so quickly this year: There was a big gap in the market, and the media is always desperate for the next one. Just look at the reactions to U.S. politician Beto O’Rourke after he confronted fellow Texan, Gov. Greg Abbott following last Tuesday’s Uvalde elementary school shooting, in a scene that easily could have come straight from a Frank Capra movie.

The irony is that we’ve never seen more heroes on our screens, both big and small – but they’re invariably either fighting monsters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the Galactic Empire rather than actual flesh-and-blood characters dealing with real-life crises.

I honestly can’t remember the last truly inspirational biopic I saw either on TV or in the cinema. Luckily for us, documentaries have been picking up the slack in recent years and giving us powerful portraits of some pretty remarkable people.

Last year we had “The Rescue,” about the amateur cave divers who, against the odds, saved the trapped Thai soccer team in 2018; “The First Wave,” about New York doctors and nurses battling on the front line during the COVID pandemic; and “Surviving 9/11,” which again focused on how ordinary people coped with the most extraordinary of circumstances.

And now we have “Navalny,” “We Feed People” and “The Janes,” focusing on three very different subjects: Russian lawyer-turned-Putin-nemesis Alexei Navalny; Spanish chef-turned-lifesaver José Andrés; and a group of young women from Chicago who founded an underground organization that arranged for women to have abortions at a time when it was illegal across the United States.

A scene from "Navalny," as Alexei Navalny returns to Russia in January 2021.Credit: Yes Docu

Two of the documentaries are particularly relevant right now. A Russian appeals court last week upheld Navalny’s nine-year prison sentence for “large-scale fraud and contempt,” or to put it more accurately, being a tireless opponent of anti-corruption and the despot/poor man’s Bond villain Vladimir Putin. And in the United States, the Supreme Court’s attempts to turn the clock back 50 years have had everyone wondering if Roe and Wade ever had first names.

But even the third documentary, about Andrés and his World Central Kitchen nonprofit, is depressingly topical given the nightmare that’s about to be unleashed by Putin’s war in Ukraine and its likely impact on grain supplies worldwide.

All three offer us a semblance of hope for a better tomorrow – if only we can get through today first.

Rare insight

“Navalny” is remarkable on two levels. First, it offers an intimate portrait of the rebellious Russian in the months after a botched assassination attempt and his fateful return to Russia after recuperating in Germany. Second, it gives us rare insight into what life in an authoritarian police state actually looks like, and the bravery people exhibit knowing they will be dragged away by the police at the first sign of social protest.

The film is directed by Daniel Roher, whose last documentary was “Once Were Brothers” about Robbie Robertson and the Band, and there’s something of the rock ’n ’roll star – or at least successful Eurovision Song Contest entrant – about 45-year-old Navalny as he addresses crowds in Russia and, increasingly importantly, audiences on social media.

“My political superpower – I can talk to anyone,” he smiles, dismissing concerns about previous dalliances with the far right as a necessary evil in order to oust Putin.

He’s a truly charismatic guy, which must really infuriate the Russian president – a man with all the charm of a stick of celery, but without the health benefits. It’s almost funny to see how Putin refuses to ever utter Navalny’s name at news conferences, and genuinely funny to see the excuses Putin’s media cronies came up with to explain Navalny’s poisoning with a classic Soviet-era nerve agent, Novichok, in August 2020 (“He drank moonshine” is actually the most credible they can manage).

This would be a fascinating insight into the man with “one of the most dangerous jobs in the world,” as the American media dubbed him, without the attendant dramas of the poisoning attempt. With it, it’s sensational.

Alexei Navalny and Russian investigative reporter Maria Pevchikh listening to one of Navalny's would-be assassins, in "Navlny."Credit: Yes Docu

There are two remarkable 10-minute scenes: when Navalny speaks on the phone to one of his apparent FSB (Russian security service) poisoners, who unwittingly tells him how the whole attack unfolded. (Travel tip: Be careful where you leave your underwear in Siberian hotels. Professional tip: Telling your target how you tried to kill him is not good for your health.) Then there’s the plane journey to Moscow in January 2021 as Navalny and wife Yulia return home after his recuperation for his inevitable arrest.

For any filmmaker looking for how to capture tension, both of these scenes serve as master classes.

Navalny isn’t the only hero here. There’s also Christo Grozev, chief investigator at the “people’s intelligence agency” Bellingcat, who tracks down Navalny’s would-be assassins. “We don’t trust sources – because we don’t trust humans. We trust data,” he explains. It proves a wise strategy.

Of course, with Navalny currently rotting in a Russian prison and Putin laying waste to eastern Ukraine, you might wonder where the feel-good factor might be found here. But it’s there in the bravery of its protagonist and his defiant message to fellow Russians. “We are a huge power,” he says in a direct-to-camera speech at the end. “We don’t realize how strong we are.”

Heroic deeds

HBO documentary “The Janes” also has a remarkable story to tell: about the group of young, middle class, largely white women who provided Chicagoans with safe abortions in the pre-Roe v. Wade years. Their group, Jane, was “an outrageous undertaking by a lot of smart women, traveling under the radar of the Chicago Mafia [who used to run the city’s abortion racket] and Chicago Police Department. That was a case where men’s underestimating women’s ambitions worked very well for us,” one of the activists explains, over 50 years on. (I watched a review copy without any captions identifying the interviewees, which in a strange way worked well by making all of these determined women “Jane.”)

The strength of the abortion activists’ testimony, and how they would arrange some 30 abortions a day, three times a week, overcomes the matter-of-fact visual presentation of talking heads and archival footage. The words are what make this such a riveting story.

“The Janes” also has a stand-out sequence involving a police raid on a home where abortions were being carried out, and the lengths to which the cornered Janes went to avoid arrest (“I don’t know if you’ve ever tried eating an index card – it’s very fibrous,” one of them deadpans).

Some of the abortion activists in Jane, whose story is retold in HBO's "The Janes."Credit: HBO / Yes Docu

The women are another wonderful example of everyday people stepping out of their comfort zone to confront injustice and help others. Or as one Jane concludes: “We were ordinary women trying to save women’s lives. We wanted every woman who contacted us to be the hero of her own story.”

More heroism is on show in veteran director Ron Howard’s “We Feed People,” about José Andrés and his impressive World Central Kitchen. The Spanish-born chef has become a big name on the U.S. food scene, and is driven by a belief that big problems have simple solutions – and who better, therefore, to solve the problems disaster zones create than chefs, who spend their lives working in and being surrounded by chaos.

There’s definitely a touch of the Gordon Ramsays about Andrés, who isn’t afraid to apply a liberal sprinkling of F-words and tantrums as he attempts to feed desperate people after Mother Nature has done her worst. You name a recent natural disaster and Andrés and his team were soon on the scene to assist: Haiti, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, the Bahamas, Japan – even parts of the United States during the pandemic. He’s currently helping to feed displaced Ukrainian refugees in Poland.

Sure, “We Feed People” could be seen as a glorified ad for Andrés’ organization, but there’s no denying the great work it does while trying to avoid accusations of white saviorism. And when the passionate chef states that he would “like to be part of a system to end hunger in the world,” you don’t doubt his authenticity or desire to find the not-so-simple solution to this very big problem.

Spanish chef José Andrés attending the premiere of "We Feed People" in New York earlier this month.Credit: Evan Agostini /AP

Ron Howard has developed a tasty sideline in documentaries, with “We Feed People” following 2016’s terrific “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – the Touring Years.” The added bonus for viewers is that while he’s making these excellent documentaries, he’s not able to make another turgid Dan Brown adaptation. Let’s drink to that, while we still can.

“Navalny” is on Yes Docu at 10 P.M. on June 7 and an hour later on Hot 8, and thereafter on Yes and Hot VOD, Sting TV and Cellcom tv. “The Janes” is on Hot 8 at 10 P.M. on June 9 and Yes Docu at the same time on June 13. It is also on Yes and Hot VOD, Sting TV and Cellcom tv from June 9. “We Feed People” is on National Geographic.

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