Oscar-winning director Daniel Roher got his start with CBC Short Docs
Roher’s film, Navalny, won the 2023 Oscar for best documentary. He reflects on his early work.
Daniel Roher's film Navalny won the Oscar for best documentary feature at the 2023 Academy Awards on March 12.
Incredibly, the star-studded ceremony may have been one of the most ordinary places this Canadian director has been.
Roher's films have brought him to the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, where children hunkered down in rocket shelters, and to Kampala, Uganda, where a boxer battled through sudden vision loss. And these were just his earliest works.
Navalny, his latest, brought Roher face to face with Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader and activist who was poisoned in 2020 — an alleged assassination attempt — and currently sits in a solitary confinement cell about 250 kilometres east of Moscow.
The documentary has already picked up awards from the BAFTAs, Critics Choice Documentary Awards, and audience awards at Hot Docs and the Sundance Film Festival. For Roher, making the film was "a fever dream, a non-stop roller-coaster." And, he added, audiences are now connecting the dots between the poisoning and the current war in Ukraine — the actions, he's said, of a "paranoid regime run by a crazy KGB thug."
Raised in Toronto and speaking from Los Angeles, the young filmmaker mused on his early start and what led him to this moment.
"It's been an extraordinary 10 years," Roher said.
The 'empowering' medium of documentaries
Using the camcorder he received as a gift, Roher's first movies were fun projects made with friends, shooting around Toronto, learning about cameras.
Early adventures included shutting down a TTC subway line when a portable generator started leaking gas — they were lugging it from his parents' house to light a Toronto alleyway. Roher was just 15.
"I just had a very supportive, creative upbringing where I could make films and paint," he said. "And I found a little creative community in high school with a group of kids who were similarly passionate about filmmaking and art."
Roher credits the Etobicoke School of the Arts ("such a great place") with introducing him to filmmaking and cinema. After graduating, he went to school in the U.S. for a few semesters on a scholarship; he didn't like it, but he started making documentaries there.
"I learned that documentary making is a really wonderful vehicle to explore the world and explore new cultures," Roher said. "For me, that was a very empowering, cool medium, and I just wanted to make documentaries from that point forward."
Early exercises in courage
For his early short films, Roher had few resources but a ton of grit — he was willing to show up first and ask questions later.
"I would just pick a place in the world that was of interest to me, and I would go there and I would spend five weeks or six weeks and just stay there and try and find a story and try and shoot a movie," Roher said. "It was an exercise in having the courage to go out into the world."
He was rarely disappointed. Roher learned that everyone has a story, and his job as a filmmaker was to find the ones with a "visual language" worthy of film. Some stories are best told in articles, books or podcasts, he explained, but he was looking for big-screen cinematic moments.
For Finding Fukue, a CBC Short Doc, Roher followed his guitar teacher, Jessica Stuart, to Japan as she searched for a long-lost childhood friend who had stopped responding to her letters.
Roher had reached out to the CBC, which had championed his work in the past and was receptive to his idea — and Finding Fukue had a home. He met up with a close friend of his, Edmund Stenson, who was in Tokyo at the time, and they co-directed the doc together.
"The best part about making that film is that it was a film about friendship," Roher said. "And I got to make it with one of my best friends.… We were able to have a once-in-a-lifetime adventure together, shooting that movie. And that was really, really meaningful for me."
The film is the most viewed documentary on the CBC Docs YouTube channel.
"There's no question — I wouldn't be here without CBC Short Docs," he said.
Only one person to thank
As of March 3, The Hollywood Reporter predicted that Navalny would win best documentary feature.
"One of the most thrilling of the year," wrote critic Brian Tallerico, editor of RogerEbert.com. "Roher and his team are quite literally watching history unfold.… There's a scene with a phone call that should be on any list of the best documentary moments in recent memory. It's like capturing lightning on film."
On Sunday, Roher found himself on stage to accept the Oscar.
Prior to winning, Roher said he'd just have one person to thank if he won. "There's only one person I would thank, and that's Alexei Navalny, who right now is languishing in a solitary confinement cell [3½] hours outside of Moscow," Roher said.
"This is not going to be the type of speech where, you know, I thank everyone I've ever met in my life. I have 45 seconds where I try to deliver what I would imagine to be a political message in support of Alexei Navalny, in support of his freedom, in support of Russian democracy, and in support of freedom of speech and anti-authoritarianism.… So that's a lot to pack into 45 seconds."
Watch some of Roher's short documentaries on CBC Gem.
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