As a group of young activists traverse a public park in Moscow in “We Are Russia,” you can see what they’re up against when not only many refuse flyers touting the candidacy of Alexi Navalny in the upcoming 2018 presidential election, but they make a spectacle of ripping up the leaflets, urging one another to “Tear it up and throw it away.” As disheartening as this might be for someone as idealistic as Milena, one of the volunteers for the Navalny campaign who fearlessly will stand in front of public places with signs taking the current Putin regime to task for its corruption, it is unlikely to deter her and as she and a new generation in Russia eager for change thrust themselves fearlessly into the election cycle for a race that is largely considered predetermined, director Alexandra Dalsbaek is there every step of the way as the police come up with trumped up charges to informally suppress potential protests and the resignation of those who dismiss their efforts only illustrates why they fight so hard for a new government.
With Navalny only able to communicate to his supporters via YouTube when his safety is hardly assured — upon his recent return to Russia, he was jailed upon his arrival after being poisoned in August 2020 — “We Are Russia” spends its time on the ground with his surrogates, all under constant threat of being picked off by the police and processed through the court system or suffering injuries during confrontations as they set up peaceful demonstrations in front of many of Russia’s most emblematic institutions. The chilling effect of Putin’s reach can be felt throughout when his opposition can simply disappear, but as Dalbaek bears witness to, there is considerable power in simply showing up and registering a counterpoint when the campaign may not shift election results but highlights hypocrisy so publicly it can’t easily be ignored.
On the eve of “We Are Russia”’s international premiere at DOC NYC, following its premiere at Visions du Reel and a host of dramatic events for Navalny post-election that led to a reworking of the film, Dalbaek spoke about making her documentary debut feature after working in breaking news, collecting footage while her subjects were constantly having to deal with police and what she learned from observing this new breed of political activists in Russia.
How did this come about?
It was in March 2017, and at that time, Alexi Navalny, who is the number one opposition leader in Russia started a big protest movement against corruption of the elites in power. A lot of people took the streets of Moscow — a lot of very young people went to protest outside and I was working as a freelance journalist. I saw that something new was happening and a lot of my colleagues as well, we were all very surprised by this new generation of protesters because for several years, the opposition was very quiet in Russia. I was actually born and raised in France and there, protests on the streets are something very usual, but when I saw these young people outside in Moscow, I thought that I have to make a film about this movement because something really new was happening. I very much wanted to document it, so I talked about that with Maria Ibrahimova, the producer of the film, and we decided we have to make a film about this new generation of protesters.
The film gravitates towards a young activist named Milena. How did she become a focus?
I met Milena at one of the activists’ actions. Very often, they went to different places in Moscow to take solitary protests and it was the only legal way to protest at that time because any form of group protests was, and is still forbidden in Russia. Nikolay, one of the characters of the film, told me that [he and Milena] were going to the White House in Moscow and I should join because I was keeping contact with him and very often asking him what is next. Milena was there and I filmed them together and when I talked to her, she was very, very friendly from the beginning — and a lot of these young activists and Navalny’s staff at large were very suspicious of me for about six months. But Nikolay and Milena trusted me very quickly and I quickly understood she’s doesn’t fear anything. She really wanted to change something and to go on protesting and win this impossible battle against the power. Little by little, I kept in touch with her and I decided that she should be one of the main characters because she was very interesting and a very strong character.
When your background is in news producing, was it any different approaching this as a film?
Yes, it was very different because when I worked with news, we typically work on very short reports and sometimes it’s quite frustrating because we meet amazing people and we’d like to give them more space to tell their stories. With “We Are Russia,” I was lucky on one hand not to have any deadline and I had the possibility to take the time to really film the characters often and for a long period of time, so it was really different from what I’m used to doing, but on the other hand, we didn’t have a proper budget or a TV channel [for distribution] in advance, so that was the difficult part, but we were quite free to take the time to make the film as we wanted it to be. It was a very exciting experience.
Is there a point in the film where you had a certain idea of what it would be and it changed direction on you?
Actually, we made a first version of the film [that played at Visions du Reel in 2020] and the second version [playing DOC NYC] is quite different because I had the opportunity to take the plane with Alexi Navalny when he decided to come back to Russia from Berlin where he was cured after being poisoned. With Maria, we understood that the film could be different with this new episode and we decided that we have to edit it differently, adding several episodes with the activists. I think it’s more complete, but the ending now is quite uncertain since Navalny’s in jail.
Even before that, was it difficult to capture some of these protests in the time leading up to the election?
At that time, the police in Moscow were quite tolerant with solitary pickets, maybe because we were in a period of campaign and the attention of the media from all around the world was focused on what was happening in Russia. There was [some] pressure because I knew that when I was filming and following the activists, we could be controlled by the police and that often happened, but I also knew that there isn’t any law at that time forbidding me to film the activists or to film even the police, which was surprising for me every time I filmed the activists. They were really aware about what their rights were and they always knew that legally they had the right to be here, to take this posture and to protest. They always had an answer for the police. It was a bit different when there were big protest actions, which weren’t agreed to by the police or the city mayor and I knew then that I could be arrested and my characters could be arrested too, but I was lucky enough not to be noticed by the police actually, so it was a matter of luck.
I’m glad for that and it must be a huge weight off your shoulders. What’s it like getting it out there?
Obviously, it’s really exciting because it’s the first time I have the opportunity to show my film in an international festival and it’s amazing. I On the other hand, I’m always thinking about what could be the consequences because I live in Russia and now even the word Navalny is difficult to write online because he’s been considered as an extremist since June 2021. All his [positions] are now considered extremist on the same level as the Islamic State, and he’s asked [his supporters] to protect themselves. I’m not an activist. I’m a filmmaker/journalist, but nowadays in Russia, several journalists and a lot of media have been labeled as foreign agents, which is big problem for these media, so I’m always thinking about what could happen, but I hope nothing will.
“We Are Russia” will screen at DOC NYC at the Cinepolis Chelsea on November 11th at 7:05 pm and November 12th at 5 pm and will be available on the DOC NYC online platform from November 12th-28th.