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7 excellent documentaries to watch for in 2018

The Sundance Film Festival premiered daring nonfiction films about deportation, Russian propaganda, high school, Alabama, and more.

Keire Johnson and Zack Mulligan in Minding the Gap
Keire Johnson and Zack Mulligan in Minding the Gap.
Bing Liu/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.

Documentaries — whether they’re made in the traditional talking-head format or a more experimental mode — are a big part of the Sundance Film Festival’s annual programming lineup, often setting the pace for the year’s most talked-about nonfiction films.

And the 2018 fest yielded a bumper crop of terrific offerings, including a number of lauded biopics about figures like Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the late actor Robin Williams, actress and activist Jane Fonda, women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred, and the beloved TV figure Fred Rogers.

But plenty of nonfiction films that premiered at Sundance and center on less familiar figures are also worth your notice. Here are seven to watch for in 2018.

Bisbee ’17

Fernando Serrano in Bisbee ‘17
Fernando Serrano in Bisbee ‘17.
Jarred Alterman/4th Row Films/Sundance Institute

Directed by unconventional documentarian Robert Greene, Bisbee ’17 is a fierce, lyrical probe into the soul of a town haunted by a history it would rather forget. It’s also an unsettling cipher for America, at a time when the ghosts of our past have revealed themselves in frightening ways.

Greene ventured to Bisbee, Arizona, for the centennial of a 1917 incident in which 1,200 striking miners were illegally deported to New Mexico. By stitching together interviews with locals, quiet shots of the town and the stunning landscape that surrounds it, and footage of Bisbee’s preparations to reenact what happened, the film gently blows the dust of accumulated history off the past and, in the process, exposes some of the town’s still-tender wounds.

Bisbee 17 is awaiting distribution.

Minding the Gap

Keire Johnson and Zack Mulligan in Minding the Gap
Keire Johnson and Zack Mulligan in Minding the Gap.
Bing Liu/Sundance Institute

Minding the Gap director Bing Liu grew up in Rockford, Illinois — one of America’s most dangerous cities, partly thanks to an exceptionally high rate of domestic violence. To make the film, he trained his camera on three of his friends, all avid skateboarders, for years.

The result is often troubling and deeply moving, a story about the ways that generational violence and poverty affect families and cities. But it’s presented through the lens of the characters’ individual stories, so Minding the Gap never gets too mired in its own seriousness. As a work of nonfiction, it’s stunning; as a piece of storytelling, it’s heartbreaking.

Minding the Gap is awaiting distribution.

Hale County This Morning, This Evening

Hale County This Morning, This Evening
Hale County This Morning, This Evening.
IDIOM Film/RaMell Ross/Sundance Institute

As much poem as documentary, RaMell Ross’s Hale County This Morning, This Evening is the sort of film for which the word “lyrical” was invented. Ross, who started his career as a large-format photographer, carefully assembles hours of footage he shot while living in Hale County, Alabama — water dripping down a baby’s stomach, kids goofing off in a parking lot, church congregants singing during mass, old houses, insects, and more.

Together, they act as brushstrokes to create a portrait of a community, capturing a way of life in a place burdened by history. In the few instances that Ross uses text on screen, the sentences are as carefully, elegantly structured as the images, carrying narrative and emotional weight that’s deeply affecting. Hale County This Morning, This Evening is a major work, and a richly rewarding one.

Hale County, This Morning, This Evening is awaiting distribution.

A Thousand Thoughts

Sam Green and the Kronos Quartet perform A Thousand Thoughts
Sam Green and the Kronos Quartet perform A Thousand Thoughts.
Sundance Institute

A Thousand Thoughts won’t be available to add to your Netflix queue anytime soon. Sam Green has been experimenting with the “live documentary” format for a while — combining live performance with footage and narration — and with A Thousand Thoughts, he and co-director Joe Bini have pulled off a minor miracle.

The project is a documentary about the history of the famed Kronos Quartet, during which the Quartet itself appears on stage, playing music to accompany the footage. Seeing A Thousand Thoughts was a highlight of Sundance for the few hundred people lucky enough to attend one of two performances, and its very ephemerality is part of its effectiveness; overflowing with joy and gratitude, it’s a testament to what kind of art a long love between collaborators creates.

A Thousand Thoughts will play in selected engagements to be announced.

306 Hollywood

306 Hollywood
306 Hollywood.
Elan Bogarín and Jonathan Bogarín/Sundance Institute

The directors of 306 Hollywood, brother-sister pair Jonathan and Elan Bogarín, wanted to make a “magical realism” documentary that would elevate the everyday into something extraordinary. They chose their grandmother as their subject; before she passed away, they spent about a decade interviewing her on camera, and after her death in 2011, they spent nearly a year on an “archaeological expedition” in her house, probing through her belongings and assembling “portraits” of her and their family history from what they found.

The resulting documentary is not a narrative so much as a cloud of knowing, a catalog of a family that is unexpectedly affecting even though most viewers won’t have any reason to care about this particular family. It’s also a moving tribute to a grandmother and a poignant reflection on memory and time.

306 Hollywood is awaiting distribution.

Our New President

Our New President
Our New President.
Sundance Institute

The point of watching Our New President isn’t so much to learn something as it is to experience it. The film is a deep-dive into the Russian state propaganda machine as it goes all in for Donald Trump, telling the story of Trump’s election entirely through footage from Russian news and ordinary Russian citizens’ homemade videos.

Director Maxim Pozdorovkin fills in some of the blanks for Americans, but for the most part the idea isn’t to tell us what happened; instead, Our New President wants us to feel what it’s like to be assaulted by what we used to think of as “fake news,” and to experience the earth shifting beneath our feet. The film is funny at first, but as it progresses, it gets more and more chilling.

Our New President is awaiting distribution.

America to Me

Grant Lee and Gabe Maes in America to Me
Grant Lee and Gabe Maes in America to Me.
Participant Media/Sundance Institute

From Steve James, director of Hoop Dreams and the newly Oscar-nominated Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, comes this 10-part documentary series about the challenges of achieving true racial integration in one of Chicago’s most progressive public schools, located in the city’s suburban Oak Park neighborhood.

America to Me’s first five episodes, which screened at Sundance, introduce us to a number of students and teachers as they begin the school year. All of them are charismatic and fascinating, and James is careful to reveal his hand early, exploring why he chose these particular subjects and noting the resistance his project faced from some members of the school’s administration. But the characters themselves are compulsively watchable, and as an expertly constructed docuseries, America to Me feels like a high school drama, except one where the stakes are real.

America to Me will be distributed by Starz later this year.

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