Just look at any streaming service’s offerings: Nonfiction cinema (or just “documentaries,” if you prefer) is in its heyday. Filmmakers are bending and twisting and experimenting with the form, and the results are often more exciting than what’s happening with their fictional counterparts.
So it’s no surprise that this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which often premieres the year’s buzziest and most brilliant documentaries, was loaded with fascinating, challenging, and entertaining offerings. From playful explorations of the natural world to portraits of countries — and even one film shot entirely in virtual reality — here are the 15 nonfiction films to watch for this year, and where to find them.
Ramin Bahrani usually makes fiction films (like White Tiger or Chop Shop), but for his first feature documentary he turned to Richard Davis, the man who invented the concealable bulletproof vest. Bahrani sees Davis — with his gun obsession, self-mythologizing, penchant for ignoring inconvenient facts, and cult of personality — as a kind of stand-in for America, and 2nd Chance makes the strong case that he’s right. Through startlingly candid interviews, wild archival footage, and a keen visual sense, Bahrani shows how Davis’s invention changed the world, and what the true lasting effects of that change have been.
How to watch it: 2nd Chance is awaiting distribution.
Sam Green’s 32 Sounds is a playful, thoughtful documentary, best watched wearing headphones or in a live performance (really!). Green narrates the film, which explores the world of sound and its meaning for human existence. At times, text on screen instructs the viewer to close their eyes to experience the sound more fully. The sound is carefully designed so that you feel like you’re in the film, rather than just an observer, in a way that’s even more immersive than a state-of-the-art movie theater. It’s a delightful, joyous film that changes the way you look at — or maybe listen to — the world.
How to watch it: 32 Sounds will tour as live performances; check the website for details.
A House Made of Splinters
A documentary of stunning intimacy, A House Made of Splinters is an observational film about children living in a group home in Lysychansk, Ukraine; it’s designed to be a temporary living situation for children in at-risk situations. The women who run the home are caring and nurturing, but that can’t change the struggles the children face every day: longing for parents whose alcoholism keeps them from even visiting, or fearing violence at home, or worrying that they’ll be separated from their siblings and friends. There are no easy answers, but Simon Lereng Wilmont’s careful camerawork and clear rapport with the children lead to uncommonly candid footage and, occasionally, a sense of hope.
How to watch it: A House Made of Splinters is awaiting distribution.
All That Breathes
Delhi’s rapidly worsening air quality and religious violence form the backdrop for All That Breathes, Shaunak Sen’s lyrical portrait of two men who work to save injured and sick birds in the city. Their quest to find resources for their perpetually underfunded operation winds together with meditations on the nature of the birds, particularly kites, birds of prey that have been forced to adapt to the changing city. “Delhi is a gaping wound, and we’re a Band-Aid on it,” one of them says. Their work stands as a metaphor for the huge task that bringing healing to the city’s human residents might be, too. After all, we all breathe the same air.
How to watch it: All That Breathes is awaiting distribution.
One of the festival’s most blistering and brilliant documentaries, Descendant tracks the attempt to find and surface the Clotilda, the last ship carrying enslaved people to arrive in the United States, long after the slave trade (but not slavery itself) was made illegal. Director Margaret Brown weaves together the stories of the descendants of those who arrived on the Clotilda with the history of the region, and of the powerful family that’s tried to bury and deny its story for so long. It’s an engrossing, often thrilling story with implications that echo across America today.
How to watch it: Descendant was acquired by Netflix and is awaiting a release date.
Downfall: The Case Against Boeing
Rory Kennedy’s enraging documentary traces the events that led to two crashes of the Boeing 737 Max planes and the deaths of hundreds of people. Boeing’s slide from a well-respected company built on trust and attention to detail to a company that hid the truth to satisfy the demands of profit is familiar, but terrifying nonetheless. And Downfall: The Case Against Boeing is an exceptionally strong expose, one with a clear thesis, a powerful, direct argument to make, and implications that extend far beyond just Boeing.
How to watch it: Downfall: The Case Against Boeing will premiere on Netflix on February 18.
Fire of Love
Fire of Love, the tale of married volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft, was one of the festival’s breakout hits. When you see it, you’ll know why. Narrated by Miranda July and directed by Sara Dosa, Fire of Love is a tale of romance, both between Katia and Maurice and between the Kraffts and volcanoes. It’s no spoiler to say the couple perished in a volcanic explosion in 1991 (the film tells us this from the start), which means the whole tale is overlaid with bittersweet retrospection. But their passion for volcanoes, and the way they thought it might translate into helping mankind, helps us see who they really were, and the result, built largely from archival footage, is breathtaking. (Plus, lots of eye-popping lava shots!)
How to watch it: Fire of Love was acquired by National Geographic Documentary Films and will be theatrically released later this year.
Free Chol Soo Lee
In 1973, a Korean immigrant named Chol Soo Lee was accused of a murder in San Francisco — a murder he didn’t commit. While he was imprisoned, a “Free Chol Soo Lee” movement sprung up across the country, propelled by people who saw his situation as about not just him, but about the status of people of Asian descent in America. Free Chol Soo Lee, directed by Eugene Yi and Julie Ha, tells his story both during the movement and after, pointing out the ways that going to prison and becoming an unlikely icon affected Lee’s life when the hubbub faded.
How to watch it: Free Chol Soo Lee was acquired by Mubi and is awaiting a release date.
I Didn’t See You There
Filmmaker Reid Davenport employs a first-person point of view for his documentary I Didn’t See You There, in which he lets us see the world through his own eyes. Davenport is disabled and often uses a wheelchair to get around Oakland, where he lives and makes films. He narrates the film, a sometimes funny and sometimes furious window into the casual inconveniences and less casual indignities he runs into in a world not built for him, and reflects on the legacy of figures like P.T. Barnum who turned disabilities into something to be both stared at and ignored. It’s a must-see.
How to watch it: I Didn’t See You There is awaiting distribution.
My Old School
Just a flat-out fun documentary (and thus a rather rare breed), My Old School is a tale of a very weird event at a Scottish school in the 1990s. Former students are interviewed by director Jono McLeod — who also went to the school — about their memories of one unusual schoolmate. (He was also interviewed for the film, but refused to be shown on camera, so actor Alan Cumming lip-synchs to the audio.) Watching My Old School is like listening to a bunch of friends tell you about the wildest memory they share, and with flashbacks rendered in animation that recalls ’90s shows like Daria, it’s a romp of a period piece, too.
How to watch it: My Old School is awaiting distribution.
Did you know — I certainly didn’t — that in 1968, following a summer of unrest across the nation, the US military set up two model “towns,” called Riotsvilles? There military personnel and police forces from across the US could learn how to quell “civil disorders.” Director Sierra Pettingill draws on archival footage shot by the military to tell the story of the Riotsvilles and of the bigger attempt to keep citizens (and, some claimed, “outside agitators”) from protesting. Constructed like an essay, Riotsville, USA asks what we make of this footage today, “embedded as we are in the future they were meant to ensure,” and traces a damning path to today’s militarization of the police and rhetoric that still echoes in the halls of power.
How to watch it: Riotsville, USA is awaiting distribution.
Sirens is about the only all-female metal band in Lebanon, but it’s about a lot more than that. Rita Baghdadi centers her story — which is so rhythmic and well-edited that you could mistake it for a carefully plotted scripted film — on the relationship between the band’s co-founders, Lilas and Sherry, and the ways their relationship echoes challenges they’re living through. Unrest in Beirut, family tensions, and the physical danger that queer women like them face in their country make for a tumultuous life, and they rely on one another and on the issues they address in their music to maintain hope for a better future.
How to watch it: Sirens is awaiting distribution.
The nature of self-mythologizing on a national scale rises to the top in Tantura, which centers on the now-elderly members of an Israeli Defense Force brigade and an event that some of them claim never happened in 1948. During the Arab-Israel war, the Palestinian village of Tantura was razed, and many of its inhabitants were killed, but Israel’s official position has long been that it was not a massacre. Instead, casualties were all framed as casualties of war. Alon Schwarz, with exacting care and often shocking interviews, excavates what really happened in Tantura through the eyes of people who were there and who live nearby now. The film digs into what often stands between societies and the pursuit of truth.
How to watch it: Tantura is awaiting distribution.
The Indigenous Uru-eu-wau-wau people live in the Amazon rainforest, and over decades have watched their territory become an island surrounded by farms and settlers that only decimate the landscape. After President Bolsonaro’s election and thanks to his rhetoric, some people felt emboldened enough to invade and survey Uru-eu-wau-wau land, planning to cut down its trees and settle. Alex Pritz’s documentary, co-produced by the Uru-eu-wau-wau, follows the people through several years of struggling to get the Brazilian government to take action, and to convince the world that they’re being invaded. It’s a beautiful film, and certainly an enraging one.
How to watch it: The Territory was acquired by National Geographic Documentary Films and is awaiting a release date.
We Met in Virtual Reality
We Met in Virtual Reality was my surprise favorite documentary of the festival. Joe Hunting’s extraordinary film was entirely filmed on the social VR platform VRChat, where he spent time with and interviewed several subjects, from a dance teacher to a sign language instructor to a couple who fell in love on the platform. I confess that I expected the movie to be gimmicky, but I was totally wrong. Instead, it’s a meditation on connection and finding a community where you belong, featuring subjects who’d found genuine friendships and relationships in VRChat that extended into the physical world. Hunting shot it in-world with a camera developed on the platform, and it looks marvelous. You may also find yourself wiping away a tear or two.
How to watch it: We Met in Virtual Reality is awaiting acquisition.