A still from The Stroll by Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

The Sundance Documentary Watch List

10 films we'll be keeping an eye on at this year's festival

15 mins read

Another year of the Sundance Film Festival is upon us. The festival kicks off in-person tomorrow and the documentaries that debut in Park City will inevitably set the conversation for the year in non-fiction. This year, expect the response for Sundance films to come in waves as virtual access has a mild delay to accentuate the in-person experience (and fairly so). However, with over half of this year’s Oscar shortlist drawing directly from Sundance 2022’s line-up, doc fans can expect a steady thunder of buzz over the next ten days.

Sundance also has something to prove on the doc front this year following the controversy of Jihad Rehab, which unfortunately overwhelmed and overshadowed aspects of last year’s festival. The doc, which drew immediate controversy for questions of ethics, authorship, and narrative framing, prompted an outcry from filmmakers and an unprecedented apology from the festival. It didn’t help, either, that the film’s director kicked off awards season with a months-long take-no-prisoners Oscar campaign that reframed the conversation to one of censorship and artistic expression. However, this year’s line-up addresses the issues raised in the wake of said controversy and tactfully responds via careful curation.

An early taste of this year’s line-up shouldn’t have doc fans worrying, though. Although the documentary slate of this year’s festival skews a bit more towards profiles, character pieces, and celebrity docs, there’s no evidence of the risk-averse programming. In fact, this year’s festival looks to solidify Sundance’s role as a champion for authentic storytelling in non-fiction.

With that in mind, here are ten documentaries high on POV’s radar for this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Aaju Peter appears in Twice Colonized by Lin Alluna, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Angela Gzowski Photography.

Twice Colonized (World Cinema Documentary Competition)

Our 2016 cover story for Angry Inuk remains one of the most popular articles we’ve ever published, so it’s no surprise that the return of lawyer and activist Aaju Peter is atop our list. Peter is still “angry” as her story continues. Peter’s fire burns stronger than ever, though, as her profile grows and she gains new opportunities to speak for Indigenous sovereignty. The doc, directed by Danish filmmaker Lin Alluna, observes as Peter confronts her experience as a person “twice colonized.” She channels her thoughts into a memoir that processes how she was colonized once as an Inuk, who, in her native Greenland, faced a language and culture imposed on her by the Danes and then again by the Canadian government when she moved to Nunavut. Twice Colonized credits Angry Inuk director Alethea Arnaquq-Baril among its producers, along with Bob Moore of EyeSteelFilm, so readers can expect much of the same passion and fury that made Peter’s story so compelling the first time.

The Stroll (U.S. Documentary Competition)

and KOKOMO CITY (Next)

The stories of Black transwomen and sex workers fuel two noteworthy Sundance selections. In The Stroll, director Kristen Lovell draws upon her own experience walking the strip from 17th Street to 9th Avenue in New York’s Meatpacking District. The film, which also credits Framing Agnes star Zackary Drucker as director and Spaceship Earth’s Matt Wolf as producer, gives voice to other sex workers who relied upon “the stroll” to make ends meet when few options existed for transwomen.

In KOKOMO CITY, acclaimed music producer D. Smith makes her feature directorial debut with a buoyant story that sees four Black transwomen share their day-to-day experiences from sex work to dating. The film confronts the power dynamics of gender and race as Smith explores facets of Black trans lived experiences. While The Stroll comes to the festival courtesy of HBO Docs, KOKOMO CITY is a true DIY affair in the spirit of Sundance. Smith picked up the camera herself after having one door after another slammed in her face.

Paulina Urrutia and Augusto Góngora appear in The Eternal Memory by Maite Alberdi, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

The Eternal Memory (World Cinema Documentary Competition)

After wowing Sundance 2020 with The Mole Agent and its playful investigation into elderly care, director Maite Alberti’s film provided unexpected COVID-era comfort to audiences who related to its themes of loneliness. Alberti returns to the festival after being one of Sundance 2020’s true success stories. The Mole Agent was Chile’s official submission in the Oscar race for Best International Feature and scored a nomination for Best Documentary Feature, so Alberti’s latest film, The Eternal Memory comes with high expectations. The Eternal Memory sees Alberti return to stories of growing old as the doc observes a couple, Augusto and Paulina, whose relationship of 25-years faces a moment of inevitable heartbreak as Augusto, who has Alzheimer’s disease, can no longer recognize his beloved partner. The film features acclaimed Chilean filmmakers and brothers Pablo Larraín and Juan de Dios Larraín (Jackie, Spencer) among its producers.

The Disappearance of Shere Hite by Nicole Newnham, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

The Disappearance of Shere Hite (U.S. Documentary Competition)

Another member of the Sundance 2020 cohort returning to Park City is director/producer Nicole Newnham. Her film directed with James Lebrecht, Crip Camp, won the Audience Award at Sundance and broke ground for representation of people with disabilities on both sides of the camera. (And, with a March 2020 Netflix release, was arguably the first film to harness a new era of virtual engagement.) Newnham turns her camera to the story of another tale that shook up the establishment: writer and sexpert Shere Hite. The film recounts how Hite built upon the work of Anne Koedt, Alfred Kinsey, and Masters and Johnson to demystify female sexuality by drawing directly from experiences shared by women for her 1976 book The Hite Report. Hite, who died in September 2020, dropped off the grid following her groundbreaking publications. This film explores the dark years bookended by her notable works.

Evgeniy Maloletka appears in 20 Days in Mariupol by Mstyslav Chernov, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | AP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov

20 Days in Mariupol (World Cinema Documentary Competition)

With Russia invading Ukraine mere days after last year’s festival completed, Sundance turns the spotlight to the violence in Ukraine. The latest tale of history in the making is 20 Days in Mariupol, directed and produced by Mstyslav Chernov. The film draws upon Chernov’s experience as a reporter for the Associated Press during the early days of the invasion. Offering immediate firsthand experience, Chernov’s footage documents the violence committed against Ukrainian civilians by the Russians, but it also looks at the human costs of war and the fight to share the truth amid misinformation wars. Much like the wave of COVID documentaries were marked by the appearance of Nanfu Wang’s In the Same Breath offering the most thoughtful assessments of the pandemic upon the one-year anniversary of the outbreak in Wuhan, 20 Days at Mariupol represents a chance to show the world a fuller story behind the headlines.

A Still Small Voice (U.S. Documentary Competition)

The next generation of documentary talent is well represented with Luke Lorentzen’s return to Sundance. The 29-year-old filmmaker brings his third feature to the festival on the heels of his popular Netflix series Last Chance U. Lorentzen’s previous feature, Midnight Family, was among the critical hits of Sundance 2019. The film about a for-profit family-run ambulance service in Mexico was a feat of bravura filmmaking. It played just about every documentary festival worth its salt that year. Like many recent Sundance alumni, Lorentzen’s new film invites high expectations, but audiences should expect A Still Small Voice to slow their heartrates whereas Midnight Family got pulses racing. The film takes audiences inside New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital as an aspiring chaplain administers spiritual care to both her patients and to herself.

The Longest Goodbye (World Cinema Documentary Competition)

Are there any fans of the Quebecois comedy Viking reading the pages of POV? While Stéphane Lafleur’s satire about a space shadow mission on Earth delighted the few people who saw it, The Longest Goodbye offers the real deal with its study of human behaviour and isolation. The Longest Goodbye kicks off Sundance’s World Cinema Documentary Competition as the Day One selection. It promises to keep audiences grounded and to provide collective catharsis for the strange period of isolation we’ve all endured on Earth. By exploring the stories of astronauts in space and the tales of subjects in shadow mission on the ground, the film considers the human costs of a new mission to Mars. Directed and produced by Israeli filmmaker Ido Mizrahy and produced by Nir Sa’ar and Canadian producer Paul Cadieux (Gaza), the film joins Twice Colonized as one of two Canadian co-productions in competition.

A still from Deep Rising by Matthieu Rytz, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Deep Rising (Premieres)

Montreal-based filmmaker, photographer, and visual anthropologist Matthieu Rytz returns to Sundance and the world’s waters after Anote’s Ark. His latest film, Deep Rising, reps environmental documentary at Sundance 2023 by offering a deep dive into innovations in resource extraction from the depths of the ocean. The film considers the possibilities of sustainable energy and the conversations that must be had when plundering materials from one of the lessor known parts of the world’s ecosystem. The film features Jason Momoa as narrator and looks at a bigger picture of the climate crisis whereas Rytz’s Anote’s Ark zeroed in on the Pacific atoll of Kiribati to consider an escalating global concern. It’s also a chance to reclaim the world of underwater docs from My Octopus Teacher.

A still from Judy Blume Forever by Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

Judy Blume Forever (Premieres)

Are you there, Sundance gods? The beloved children’s author gets the doc treatment in this feature from directors Davina Pardo (116 Cameras) and Leah Wolchok (Very Semi-Serious). Judy Blume Forever takes audiences inside the creative mind behind books such as Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret; Blubber; and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. The insight into the writer who inspired, helped, fuelled, and irked generations of young readers will be essential viewing ahead of the adaptation of Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret in April. The drama stars Rachel McAdams alongside Benny Safdie, Kathy Bates, and newcomer Abby Ryder Fortson in the title role.

 

The 2023 Sundance Film Festival starts Jan. 19.

Follow POV on Twitter and Facebook for updates throughout the festival.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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