All eyes are once again turned to Park City, Utah as the Sundance Film Festival kicks off its 40th edition. The American independent film fest has solidly established itself as the biggest platform on the world stage for documentary. Even after a slow start to the 2023 edition, the docs from last year’s Sundance are once again dominating the award season conversation this year after hitting every festival both major and minor. Films like The Eternal Memory, 20 Days in Mariupol, Kokomo City, Beyond Utopia, and Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, along with 2022’s Oscar winner Navalny, all got their starts at Sundance and we’re still talking about them a year later. It’s frankly refreshing to be looking back at a prior fest and hearing so much positive chatter.
This year’s festival admittedly carries a note of apprehension in the doc sphere. The stakes for sales are higher as the documentary ecosystem faces fewer commissions and slower sales. People are looking at Sundance as a litmus test for the state of documentary after only The Eternal Memory scored a major sale out of the gate at last year’s fest with MTV Documentary Films snapping up the Grand Jury Prize winner. (Most of the competition titles ended up finding homes as the season progressed.) But few streamers came out of major festivals with more docs than they had when they went in, and the titles with the most muscle behind them generally carried the names of major celebrities, which was perhaps a byproduct of COVID-era filmmaking that called for productions contained to one central figure or archival material.
Looking ahead to this year’s slate, though, one hopes that buyers brought their chequebooks to Sundance. Simply put: there seems to be no shortage of hot docs to fill a schedule at Sundance 2024.
Here are 10 documentaries on POV’s Sundance radar this year:
Conbody VS Everybody (Episodic)
Audiences wondering if long-form documentary has tapped out its potential might want to keep an eye on this long-in-the-making work by Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone). The episodic doc offers the flipside of salacious true crime serials by observing the experiences of formerly incarcerated individuals as they work on fresh starts while on parole. Conbody VS Everybody zeroes in on New Yorker Coss Marte as he builds a business by setting up a gym that shares the workout routine he devised in his prison cell—and offers a space for fellow people on parole to land on their feet.
Desire Lines (NEXT)
Fans of recent Sundance hit Framing Agnes will want to put Desire Lines atop their watch lists for the festival circuit. This hybrid work navigates the space between fiction and non-fiction as filmmaker Jules Rosskam explores the lives and loves of transgender men who come out as gay following their transitions. The film promises to explode notions of heteronormativity, queerness, and desire by giving voice to actors whose stories too rarely make the screen.
Gaucho Gaucho (U.S. Documentary Competition)
The Truffle Hunters duo of Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw return to the festival with Gaucho Gaucho. The film offers a portrait of Argentine cowboys, known as gauchos. Word on the project is pretty mum otherwise, but the first stills indicate that Gaucho Gaucho promises to be as visually delicious as The Truffle Hunters. Their scrumptious doc was the only non-fiction work to hit Sundance, Cannes, Telluride, and Toronto in 2020 – a rather impressive and rare feat.
Girls State (Premieres)
Directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine delivered one of the best Sundance docs ever with their 2020 Grand Jury Prize winner Boys State. The doc scored a record sale and deserved a wider audience and further accolades, but the closures forced by the COVID-19 pandemic meant that it didn’t get the theatrical run that beckoned. Still, it gave Apple a definitive foray into documentary with its portrait of an all-boys model democracy that mirrored the three-ring circus of contemporary American politics. The duo’s follow-up, Girls State, follows a similar camp for aspiring politicians where the next Kamala Harris, AOC, or (gulp) Marjorie Taylor Greene could be in the making.
Luther: Never Too Much (Premieres)
It’s not a film festival without a music documentary. This time, the prolific Dawn Porter (The Way I See It) dives into the life and music of Luther Vandross. Luther: Never Too Much chronicles the story behind the “Velvet Voice” that crooned hits like “Dance with My Father,” “Power of Love/Love Power,” and, of course, a cover of “Endless Love” with Mariah Carey. Porter’s film explores why strong voices like Vandross’s struggle to get the recognition they deserve in the mainstream, and why some artists can rarely let fans know them as they truly are.
Never Look Away (World Cinema Documentary Competition)
Actor Lucy Lawless makes her feature directorial debut with a doc that feels like a movie of the moment. Never Look Away tells the story of fearless cameraperson Margaret Moth, who captured stories from the front lines of conflict zones. Images she recorded for CNN brought history-in-the-making to living rooms around the world, including evidence of the human costs of conflict in the Gulf War and the Bosnian War. The film proposes a timely reminder of the camera’s power to hold world leaders accountable for their crimes. It’s a tale of one warrior princess told by another.
After his extraordinary feature debut Strong Island proved a historic moment at Sundance 2017 for trans storytelling, and won a special prize at the festival before scoring an Oscar nomination and an Emmy win, Yance Ford follows the examination of his brother’s murder—and the broken justice system that allowed the killer to walk away free—with another study of systemic inequity in America. Power turns the lens towards the police state to ask how and why a democratic society handed over so much authority to policing. It will be very exciting to see the evolution of Ford’s voice in the wake of Strong Island.
Soundtrack to a Coup d’État (World Cinema Documentary Competition)
Doc fans who have to make some tough choices with their schedules in the coming months might want to consider Soundtrack to a Coup d’État. This one checks all the boxes, offering music, politics, big names, and turning points in history. Belgian director Johan Grimonprez (Shadow World) plays jazz with the archives to tell the story of musicians like Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach who stood up to protest the murder of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba. The doc features audio memoirs by Nikita Khrushchev along with his iconic shoe-banging. This doc sounds toe-tappingly thrilling.
Sugarcane (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Among the Canadian highlights on this year’s documentary front is the co-production Sugarcane. Canuck director/producer Emily Kassie, who won a 2015 Student Academy Award for I Married My Family’s Killer, joins forces with director Julian Brave NoiseCat of the Canim Lake Band to investigate the abuse and disappearance of Indigenous children at a residential school near the Sugarcane Reservation. The film is among a handful of notable Indigenous titles at Sundance this year, including the short doc Winding Path from Cree filmmaker Alexandra Lazarowich and Oscar winner Ross Kauffman.
Union (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Toronto’s Brett Story has emerged as one of the most exciting talents in documentary with her poetic essay films The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, which tackled the prison system through a humanist lens, and The Hottest August, which captured Trump fever unlike any film yet. Her collaboration with New York-based filmmaker Stephen Maing (Crime + Punishment) observes the plight of the Amazon Workers Union (ALU) as folks mobilize to unionize in the online shopping behemoth. Union won the CMF-Hot Docs Forum Canadian Pitch Prize at Hot Docs 2022.
While the story offers a great hook, Amazon’s growing presence in the documentary space also leaves many filmmakers uncomfortable with the prospects of a corporation with a bad track record for labour rights becoming a power player in a field rooted in social justice, human rights, and democratic movements. How Union lands (and sells) could be one of Sundance 2024’s defining moments. My #1 vote in the festival’s “Sundance 40th” poll for the best films in the history of the festival was Barbara Kopple’s union doc American Dream, so it only feels appropriate for Union to be a doc fan’s most anticipated film of this year’s fest.