UPDATED with statement from CNN Films from original 6:31 p.m. story: Imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny got a loving message from his wife from the Oscar stage after the film about him won Best Documentary Feature on Sunday.
“Thank you to everybody here,” Yulia Navalnaya said when director Daniel Roher summoned her to the microphone after making his acceptance remarks. “My husband is in prison just for telling the truth. My husband is in prison just for defending democracy. Alexei, I’m dreaming of the day when you will be free and our country will be free. Stay strong.”
Roher’s documentary Navalny, from CNN Films, chronicles the poisoning plot that nearly took Alexei Navalny’s life. He was flying from Siberia to Moscow in August 2020 when he became deathly ill. Russian doctors who initially treated him claimed he was suffering from a metabolic disorder. But after Yulia successfully campaigned to get her husband transferred to Europe for further treatment, doctors in Germany concluded he had been poisoned with the deadly nerve agent Novichok.
Christo Grosev, a journalist for investigative collective Bellingcat who is among the main characters in Navalny, helped expose the Kremlin apparatchiks behind the plot. In a remarkable scene in the film, Navalny himself got on the phone with one of the alleged plotters, and — by posing as a government official — got the man to divulge incriminating details of the assassination attempt. Roher saluted both Grosev and Navalny’s associate Maria Pevchikh, who joined him on the Oscar stage.
“Thank you to the Academy. We are humbled to be in the company of such an extraordinary crop of documentary filmmakers. These films redefined what it is to make a documentary,” Roher said. “We owe so much to our Bulgarian nerd with the laptop, Christo Grosev. You risked everything to tell this story and it’s investigative journalists like you and Maria Pevchikh that empower our work.”
Roher saved his most passionate remarks for Navalny himself. As the film shows, the former lawyer recovered in Germany, then returned to Moscow in January 2021, whereupon he was immediately arrested. He was convicted for allegedly violating parole on an earlier conviction and later sentenced to an additional nine years in prison on alleged fraud and contempt charges.
“There’s one person who couldn’t be with us here tonight. Alexei Navalny, the leader of the Russian opposition, remains in solitary confinement for what he calls — I want to make sure we get his words exactly right — ‘Vladimir Putin’s unjust war of aggression in Ukraine,’” Roher said, referring to quotes he had written down in a notebook he held in front of him. “I would like to dedicate this award to Navalny, to all political prisoners around the world. Alexei, the world has not forgotten your vital message to us all. We cannot, we must not be afraid to oppose dictators and authoritarianism wherever it rears its head.”
The Oscar win was shared by Roher and producers Odessa Rae, Diane Becker, Melanie Miller and Shane Boris (Boris also was nominated for producing fellow Best Documentary Feature nominee Fire of Love).
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The win came for a CNN Films division that underwent major change in the past year. After a decade of acquiring and producing films by outside talent, the network under new President Chris Licht announced it would no longer follow that template, but instead produce all future documentary content in house.
CNN issued a statement minutes after the win, noting the network “celebrated its first Oscar win in its nearly 43-year history.” Amy Entelis, EVP, talent and content development for CNN Worldwide commented, “Navalny, first and foremost, is about the passion, drive, and inspiring heroism of Alexey Navalny, who even as we celebrate this award continues to languish in a penal colony. An extraordinary group of people were dedicated to keeping Alexey’s story in front of the world, from our indefatigable film team led by visionary director Daniel Roher to our partners at Warner Bros. Pictures and HBO Max, and of course our friends at Bellingcat and CNN’s Clarissa Ward.”
Entelis added in the statement, “Behind each project in CNN Films’ 10-year history is an incredible group of people who I know are beaming with pride today. 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.”
CNN Films previously earned an Oscar nomination in 2019 for RBG, the documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen.
Academy Award winners Riz Ahmed and filmmaker-musician Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson presented the category. Questlove won the Best Feature Documentary category last year for Summer of Soul, a victory overshadowed by the incident that occurred just before he was announced as the winner: Chris Rock was introducing the category when he was assaulted on stage by Will Smith (after Rock dissed Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett Smith in a joke).
Oscar host Jimmy Kimmel alluded to that as he introduced Ahmed and Questlove to reveal this year’s Best Documentary Feature. “You will recall that is where we had that little skirmish last year,” Kimmel reminded the audience. “Let’s hope this year it goes off without a hitch, or at least without Hitch. Please put your hands together — and then keep them to yourselves — for Oscar winners Riz Ahmed and Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson.”
Below is the Navalny team backstage.
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