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“I dream of the day when you will be free”

Jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny received a loving message from his wife from the Oscars stage after the film about him won Best Documentary.

“Thanks to everyone here,” Yulia Navalnaya said when director Daniel Roher called her to the microphone after he made his acceptance remarks. “My husband is in prison only because he told the truth. My husband is in prison only because he defended democracy. Alexei, I dream of the day when you will be free and our country will be free. Stay strong.”

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Roher’s documentary Navalny, from CNN Films, details the poisoning plot that nearly killed Alexei Navalny. He was flying from Siberia to Moscow in August 2020 when he fell deathly ill. Russian doctors who initially treated him claimed that he suffered from a metabolic disorder. But after Yulia successfully campaigned for her husband to be transferred to Europe for further treatment, doctors in Germany concluded that he had been poisoned with the deadly nerve agent Novichok.

Journalist Christo Grosev, one of the main characters in Navalny, helped expose the Kremlin apparatchiks behind the plot. In a notable scene in the film, Navalny himself telephoned one of the alleged conspirators, and – posing as a government official – revealed incriminating details of the assassination attempt to the man. Roher greeted both Grosev and Navalny’s collaborator Maria Pevchikh, who joined him on the Oscar podium.

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“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,” said Roher. “We owe so much to our Bulgarian nerd with the laptop, Christo Grosev. You risked everything to tell this story and it is investigative journalists like you and Maria Pevchikh who strengthen our work.”

Roher saved his most impassioned remarks for Navalny himself. As the film shows, the former lawyer recovered in Germany, then returned to Moscow in January 2021, where he was immediately arrested. He was convicted of an alleged violation of parole based on a previous conviction and later sentenced to an additional nine years in prison on alleged charges of fraud and contempt.

“There is one person who couldn’t be with us 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, citing quotes he had written down in a notebook which he held in front of him. “I want to dedicate this award to Navalny, to all political prisoners around the world. Alexei, the world has not forgotten your important message to all of us. We cannot, we must not be afraid to oppose dictators and authoritarianism wherever it arises.”

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The Oscar win was shared by Roher and producers Odessa Rae, Diane Becker, Melanie Miller and Shane Boris (Boris was also nominated for producing co-nominee for Best Documentary Feature. Fire of love).

The win came for a division of CNN Films that went through a major change in the past year. After ten years of acquiring and producing films by outside talent, the network under new president Chris Licht announced that it would no longer follow that template, instead producing all future documentary content in-house.

CNN Films earned an Oscar nomination in 2019 for RBGthe 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 for last year Summer of the soula victory overshadowed by the incident that occurred just before he was announced the winner: Chris Rock introduced the category when he was attacked onstage by Will Smith (after Rock made fun of Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, in a prank).

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Oscar host Jimmy Kimmel alluded to that when he suggested Ahmed and Questlove unveil this year’s best documentary. “You’ll remember we had that little skirmish there last year,” Kimmel reminded the audience. “Let’s hope it goes smoothly this year, or at least without it towbar. Please put your hands together – and then keep them to yourself – for Oscar winners Riz Ahmed and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson.

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