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Sundance Film Festival reveals a secret: A documentary about Putin critic Alexei Navalny, premiering Tuesday

The movie, kept under wraps, will screen as part of the festival’s U.S. Documentary competition.

(Sundance Institute) Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny is the subject of director Daniel Roher's film "Navalny," premiering Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2022, in the U.S. Documentary competition of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

A documentary about the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny — who has endured imprisonment and alleged poisoning at the hands of Vladimir Putin’s regime — will be a last-minute addition to the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

The premiere of “Navalny,” directed by Daniel Roher, will take place Tuesday at 6 p.m. on the festival’s online portal, festival.sundance.org, programmers announced Monday.

After Tuesday’s premiere, “Navalny” will be available for streaming again on Thursday, for a 24-hour window starting at 8 a.m. Produced by CNN Films, the movie will be distributed by CNN and streamed on HBO Max later this year.

Tabitha Jackson, the festival’s director, said in a statement that programmers saw Roher’s documentary last fall, and “we all immediately knew that we wanted it and would wait for it.”

Jackson said the film features “riveting cinema in the present tense, incredible access, intrepid investigative journalism, a compelling protagonist speaking truth to power — all beautifully edited, directed and produced into a timely non-fiction thriller that deals with the highest of stakes for freedom of expression.”

Roher — who directed the 2019 music documentary “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band” — said his production team was “thrilled” to premiere the film at Sundance. “Boldly confronting injustice through cinematic storytelling has been threaded into Sundance’s DNA since its inception,” Roher said in a statement.

Navalny, an anti-corruption activist and leader of the Russian opposition, was on a plane from Siberia to Moscow in August 2020 when it made an emergency stop. Navalny was gravely ill, and went from a Siberian hospital to Berlin — where German authorities found he had been poisoned with Novichok, a nerve agent often tied to attacks on opponents of Putin’s government. Putin questioned the findings, and has denied any involvement.

Roher’s film follows what happened next, as Navalny and his team partner with Bellingcat, the data investigative journalism outlet, and other news organizations (CNN is one of them) to investigate the poisoning and whether Putin’s Kremlin was involved.

Navalny returned to Russia on Jan. 17, 2021, and was detained by authorities, accused of violating his parole for embezzlement charges that The Guardian wrote were “seen as part of a campaign to stifle dissent.” His suspended sentence for that charge was changed to a 2 1/2 year prison term; Amnesty International has deemed him “a prisoner of conscience.”

“Navalny” will screen as part of Sundance’s U.S. Documentary competition. When the festival announced its slate in December, it had only listed nine entries in that category (the other leading competition groups each had 10 titles). At the time, Sundance did not say why.

The festival continues through Sunday.

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