clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

15 groundbreaking, unsettling, joyous documentaries to look for this year

The best nonfiction movies from Sundance 2021.

An animated image of nuns in a spiral set against an orange background.
A still from Rebel Hearts by Pedro Kos, one of the documentaries that played at Sundance in 2021.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The crop of documentaries that premiere at the Sundance Film Festival is always wide-ranging, both in style and in content. And this year’s selections were no exception, even if the 2021 festival was an unusual one, having largely migrated to digital platforms.

They ran the gamut from dramatic explorations of refugees’ experiences to funny and heartbreaking looks at American high schools to experimental films about technology’s effects on our lives. The world is a wide, wide place, and documentary filmmakers are committed to exploring it, celebrating it, and warning us not to take it for granted.

Here are the 15 best documentaries I saw at Sundance — and how you, too, can watch them in the months ahead.

All Light, Everywhere

A man’s face appears with probes on a headset attached, superimposed against the backdrop of a fiery sun.
A still from All Light, Everywhere by Theo Anthony.
Corey Hughes/Sundance Institute

We undeniably live in a surveillance society. Cameras are ubiquitous, from body cameras on cops to drone-enabled cameras that capture views from above to the cameras we all hold in our hands every day. But what do cameras miss? And do they really give us a more objective view of reality? That’s the question Theo Anthony (Rat Film) tackles in All Light, Everywhere, a sprawling essay film about “blind spots” in the technologies we trust (or mistrust) to keep us safe and the illusions they too often depend upon. Watching All Light, Everywhere is informative, but more importantly, it’s an experience — and a sobering one.

How to watch it: All Light, Everywhere is awaiting US distribution.

At the Ready

A group of high school students in riot police garb clusters in a hallway, holding fake plastic guns.
A still from At the Ready by Maisie Crow.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

At Horizon High School in the border town of El Paso, Texas, students have the option — just as they do in 900 other Texas high schools — to join a “law enforcement” vocational track. At the Ready follows a group of such students through a year in their lives, gently unearthing the roots of their enthusiasm for a future as a DEA agent or border patrol officer. The film wisely probes the complex intersection of race, politics, law enforcement, and adolescence, showing how the school-to-cop pipeline in America is constructed early in the lives of not only these teenagers but also thousands of others. It’s also a hopeful film, demonstrating how today’s high schoolers are engaged with and listening to rhetoric on a national scale — and how they retain the ability, unlike so many adults, to think for themselves.

How to watch it: At the Ready is awaiting distribution.

Captains of Zaatari

Two young men play football in the twilight, in silhouette.
A still from Captains of Zaatari by Ali El Arabi.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Two Syrian best friends, Mahmoud and Fawzi, are teens stuck in the Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan. They love playing football. They dream of playing professionally. And when recruiters for Syrian Dream — a team of young footballers who are also refugees — show up, they are ready to spring into action.

Director Ali El Arabi chronicles their efforts to play their way out in Captains of Zaatari, a thrilling sports documentary that underscores the high stakes of the chance these young men have to play football. But more importantly, it’s a look into the lives of refugees and the ways the world sees them. Mahmoud proclaims that refugees don’t need pity; they need opportunities. And that message resonates throughout the film.

How to watch it: Captains of Zaatari is awaiting distribution.


Three teenaged girls sit on top of a car.
A still from Cusp by Parker Hill and Isabel Bethencourt.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Cusp is a little staggering and incredibly beautiful. It centers on three teen girls in a Texas military town and one summer in their lives, but it’s not a joyride. Directors Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill only gradually reveal their subject: the pervasiveness of sexual assault in not just the girls’ lives, but also in the lives of their entire age cohort. They talk obliquely about the older men — often friends of their parents — who molested them when they were children. They discuss rape with painful familiarity.

It’s to Cusp’s credit that there’s still a sense of magic and possibility throughout the film, as if the girls have some hope for their futures. Bethencourt and Hill’s observational style means these moments are woven into their subjects’ lives; they skillfully avoid painting the girls one-dimensionally as victims by letting them be their full smart, messy, laughing selves. But Cusp makes it clear that sexual assault is a problem of culture, not of individuals — and that the fault lies with generations that don’t take action to change it.

How to watch it: Cusp is awaiting distribution.


An animated man scratches the back of his head, looking thoughtful.
A still from Flee by Jonas Poher Rasmussen, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Animation as the main medium in a documentary is still rare, but Flee uses it to great effect. Director Jonas Poher Rasmussen interviews his friend, Amin, who endured years of horror after fleeing Afghanistan with his family following the Taliban takeover. Flashbacks to Amin’s experiences are mixed in with his current uncertainties surrounding his relationship with his partner, Kasper, who desperately wants to buy a house, get married, and settle down. The effect of his past is a strong one, showing how even after finding safety and relative stability, Amin’s previous experiences will never stop reaching their long fingers into his present. Flee won the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and no wonder: It’s heartbreaking and moving, and hard to forget.

How to watch it: Flee will be distributed by Participant and Neon. It is awaiting a release date.


A teenager sits in his graduation gown in his living room, surrounded by family members.
A still from Homeroom by Peter Nicks.
Sean Havey/Sundance Institute

We’re informed at the beginning of Homeroom that the film covers the senior year of Oakland High School’s class of 2020, which means we already know what these kids don’t: The disruption of a lifetime is coming. But they were an extraordinary bunch even before they were forced to live through a pandemic.

The third film in Peter Nicks’s trilogy about Oakland, California, Homeroom focuses largely on a group of OHS students who are passionately involved in activism, particularly around policing in their schools. It makes the case that members of Gen Z have always been primed and ready to take their place as activists; it’s the rest of the country that’s finally started to move in their direction. And it’s a compassionate, powerful, and often very funny look at a generation that will never be the same.

How to watch it: Homeroom is awaiting distribution.

In the Same Breath

A crowd of Chinese people wearing masks and holding the Chinese flag.
A still from In the Same Breath, directed by Nanfu Wang.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

It’s hard to imagine any pandemic documentary being better than In the Same Breath. The film from director Nanfu Wang — who grew up in China but now lives and works in the US — takes a fearless approach to the often willful misinformation spread by multiple governments as the Covid-19 pandemic began to take hold in early 2020. It’s a daring exploration of how the Chinese government repressed information about what was really happening. But it also exposes how other governments — most notably in the US — contributed to the ongoing misinformation crisis and made the entire situation much worse than it needed to be. The result is a chilling, truly absorbing film with big implications for the future.

How to watch it: In the Same Breath premieres on HBO in spring 2021.

Philly D.A.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krassner stands in front of a crowd of reporters.
Larry Krasner in Philly D.A. by Ted Passon, Yoni Brook, and Nicole Salazar.
Yoni Brook/Sundance Institute

When Larry Krasner was elected Philadelphia’s district attorney in 2018, he became very powerful — and took many Philadelphians by surprise. Krasner had been a civil rights lawyer for decades, often finding himself in opposition to the DA’s office, and the new position came with some real challenges. Philly D.A. is an eight-part documentary series about Krasner’s new role, and it’s thrilling and intriguing to watch. The first two episodes, which premiered at Sundance, are engrossing, fast paced, and clear about the stakes of the DA office trying to implement a new agenda while retaining public trust, and the challenges of trying to turn a ship in a new direction.

How to watch it: The eight-part series premieres on PBS’s Independent Lens on April 20.


Zimbabwean presidential candidate Nelson Chamisa stands in the midst of a crowd, hands upraised to greet the people, flanked by bodyguards.
A still from President by Camilla Nielsson.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

President is a truly incredible achievement and an illuminating look into how authoritarians seek to keep people from participating in a “democracy.” Director Camilla Nielsson returned to Zimbabwe, the site of her 2014 film Democracy, to follow the 2018 presidential campaign of Nelson Chamisa, president of the opposition party. The election was a hotly contested one, with layers of history and politics specific to Zimbabwe, but President manages to draw out those layers to create a compelling portrait of what a stolen election really looks like. It is a thrilling, enraging film, and its intimate access to Chamisa and his advisers is extraordinary.

How to watch it: President is awaiting distribution.

Rebel Hearts

A group of nuns holding protest signs and guitars lead a protest.
A still from Rebel Hearts by Pedro Kos.
Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles/Sundance Institute

In the late 1960s, as social change was happening both within and beyond the walls of the Catholic Church, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Los Angeles found themselves in a quandary. Their consciences told them to adapt to better serve their community, and to advocate for social changes they saw as congruent with their faith. The bishop disagreed. Rebel Hearts tells the group’s story, focusing on why the nuns changed and what they risked in refusing to bend to church leadership. It’s a fast-paced and fascinating story that has implications far beyond Catholicism.

How to watch it: Rebel Hearts is awaiting US distribution.

Summer of Soul

Sly Stone sings into a microphone in front of a keyboard and a crowd.
Sly Stone in Summer Of Soul (Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson.
Mass Distraction Media/Sundance Institute

One of the biggest crowd-pleasers and award winners at Sundance was Summer of Soul (Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), and that’s no surprise. Ahmir Thompson — better known as Questlove, the drummer and front man for the Roots — directed the film about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, sometimes dubbed “Black Woodstock.” The staggering concert, held over a series of weekends in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park, featured everyone from Sly and the Family Stone to Nina Simone to Stevie Wonder to Mahalia Jackson. The events were filmed, but the footage sat in a basement for 50 years. Now it’s been compiled into a documentary about a pivotal moment in Black cultural history — and an absolutely infectious film to watch.

How to watch it: Summer of Soul (Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) will be distributed by Hulu. It is awaiting a release date.

Taming the Garden

A tree sits by itself on a barge in the middle of a vast body of water.
A still from Taming the Garden by Salomé Jashi.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Quietly absurd, Salomé Jashi’s Taming the Garden observes as a village in the country of Georgia uproots and transports a tree across town to a barge waiting at the shore. To move the tree requires upheaval all over the village, and many other trees have to be trimmed or cut down so passage can be made. For some of the townspeople, this upheaval is devastating. But the person who wants the tree — for reasons that remain opaque for most of the film — is providing roads in exchange, and the town desperately needs that help. Taming the Garden unspools what’s happening very slowly, and by the time we reach the end, it’s overwhelming. We’ve become the townspeople, and we now understand not only how ludicrous and sad this quest was, but also the great consequences of even the simplest pillaging of nature.

How to watch it: Taming the Garden is awaiting distribution.

Try Harder!

A teenager in a fuzzy cap stands in front of a whiteboard gesturing with a smile at calculus equations.
A student in Try Harder!
Lou Nakasako/Sundance Institute

San Francisco’s Lowell High School is one of the most competitive public high schools in the US. Its largely Asian American student body is made up of kids who would be academic stars at any normal high school. At Lowell, though, the stakes are different. That’s the focus of Debbie Lum’s Try Harder!, in which Lowell students speak frankly about the extraordinary work they’ve put into getting into their dream colleges. Try Harder! also reveals, with dark humor, the bias against students of Asian descent that persists at many elite American schools.

That’s not to say that Try Harder! is a hard-hitting exposé. It’s a very funny movie about a bunch of students trying to find their way through a system that is designed to keep them out rather than let them in. And it’s a reminder that while Americans often worship a small set of credentials and institutions, there are brilliant, multifaceted people everywhere.

How to watch it: Try Harder! will premiere on PBS’s Independent Lens.


A young boy looks straight into the camera.
A still from Users by Natalia Almada.
Natalia Almada/Sundance Institute

Quite a few films at Sundance considered the effects of technology on our lives, but none were quite so lyrical or elegant — or, perhaps, chilling — as Users. Directed by Natalia Almada and scored by the Kronos Quartet, the film feels a little symphonic, a mesmerizing exploration of how technology is transforming the ways we relate to the natural world. Humans have shifted from thinking of ourselves as small creatures on a big Earth to “users” of that Earth, bending it to our every whim. And that transformed relationship has big implications for our future as a species.

How to watch it: Users is awaiting distribution.

Writing with Fire

In India, two women journalists sit across from a row of politicians and operatives, interviewing them.
A still from Writing With Fire by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh.
Black Ticket Films/Sundance Institute

In 2002, a group of Dalit women in India — who are considered so unclean, they’re not even in the country’s caste system — started a newspaper they called Khabar Lahariya (roughly translated to “News Wave”). For many reasons, they were expected to fail, but they’re still humming along. Writing With Fire follows the women through a pivotal time of transition: They’re moving to digital platforms, which pose a special challenge for a newspaper when some of its journalists have never handled their family’s phone, lest they break it. It’s a stirring and inspiring documentary about some very courageous women, who deftly articulate and defend the need for accurate, fearless journalism in the pursuit of justice.

How to watch it: Writing with Fire is awaiting distribution.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.