Watchlist: Uncover These 9 DFP-Supported Documentaries about Trailblazing Journalists

A young boy with short hair and a blue t-shirt stnads in the street with a sign that reads "Free Press"

By Stephanie Ornelas

Journalism is crucial in preserving and strengthening our democracy. Some stories gain significant national attention, but many eye-opening reports can go under the radar. Thankfully, documentary filmmaking can help bring these essential stories to wider audiences. 

It’s not uncommon for journalists to step behind the camera to share their reporting with the world. That’s what Jeremy Scahill (producer, Dirty Wars) and Thet Sambath (director, Enemies of the People) did. Nonfiction films help us experience these narratives in a new light and bring attention to important issues, whether they’re surrounding corruption or injustice to human rights.  

Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program (DFP) has championed a breadth of documentaries about groundbreaking journalists who are often on the frontlines risking their freedom, and some even risking their lives, to give a voice to the voiceless. We invite you to dive into the world of journalism and read all about these nine documentaries supported by the DFP:

A Thousand Cuts (2020) 

Director: Ramona S. Diaz

Producer(s): Christopher Clements, Ramona S. Diaz, Julie Goldman, Carolyn Hepburn, Leah Marino 

With freedom of the press under threat in the Philippines, A Thousand Cuts follows renowned journalist Maria Ressa as she risks her life as an outspoken critic of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. Ressa has become a top target of Duterte’s crackdown on the news media. In 2017, the film received a Documentary Film Grant from Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program, and it later premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. 

“Romana S. Diaz takes the audience on an unflinching and cinematic journey following journalistic powerhouse Maria Ressa as she strives to continue her work documenting and criticizing the ongoing war on drugs in the Philippines, all while being under the dangerous scrutiny of then President Rodrigo Duterte and his government. As Maria was just recently acquitted on charges and awaits ruling on two final legal cases, this incredibly well-documented political documentary of bravery is ever timely.” — Kat Schulze, program coordinator 

Check here for viewing options.

Bad Press (2023 Sundance Film Festival)

Director(s): Rebecca Landsberry-Baker, Joe Peeler

Producer(s): Tyler Graim, Garrett Baker, Conrad Beilharz

Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler’s political docu-thriller zeroes in on the fight for free press in the Muscogee Nation. Just three years after its passage, the 2018 Free Press Act was repealed, placing Mvskoke Media, the Muscogee Nation’s sole news outlet, back under the control of the chief and his cabinet. The film centers on veteran reporter Angel Ellis, who quickly becomes the voice of dissent at the news outlet and is willing to lay it all on the line to deliver the truth to her fellow citizens. Bad Press received a post-production grant from the Documentary Film Program in 2021. The riveting film went on to premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

Bad Press is a nail-biting and deeply human account of those who seek to expose corruption. Directors Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler crafted the enthralling documentary following the modern-day muckraker Angel Ellis, who is committed to defending the freedom of the press after the Muscogee Nation Tribal legislative branches reals back journalistic protections.” — Kat Schulze, program coordinator  

Check here for upcoming screenings.

Collective (2020 Sundance Film Festival) 

Director: Alexander Nanau

Producer(s): Hanka Kastelicová, Bernard Michaux, Alexander Nanau, Bianca Oana 

In 2015, a deadly nightclub fire in Bucharest, Romania, killed 27 people and left 180 injured. After an additional 37 people die in the hospital, investigative journalists at the Romanian newspaper Gazeta Sporturilor try to uncover a vast healthcare fraud that led to the deaths of innocent citizens yet enriched moguls and politicians. Collective received a production grant in 2017, and the film went on to screen in the Spotlight section at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It was then nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature Film in 2021.

“This Academy Award–nominated exposé of government corruption in Romania showcased the power and impact of investigative journalism. Director Alexander Nanau carefully weaved together a complex narrative and multi-character story, masterfully creating a taut documentary thriller.” — Kristin Feeley, interim director, Documentary Film and Artist Programs

Check here for viewing options.

Dirty Wars (2013) 

Director: Richard Rowley

Producer(s): Anthony Arnove, Brenda Coughlin, Jeremy Scahill 

In 2012, the film received two grants from the Sundance Documentary Film Program and participated in the Documentary Producers Lab, which helped bring Dirty Wars to life. 

The thrilling documentary follows investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill as he traces the rise of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the most secret and elite fighting force in U.S. history. Exposing covert operations carried out by men who do not exist on paper and will never appear before Congress, Scahill chases down the hidden truth behind America’s expanding secret wars and examines how the U.S. government has responded to international terrorist threats. 

“Based on journalist Jeremy Scahill’s book, Dirty Wars traces the activities of an elite military unit that gained notoriety for killing Osama Bin Laden. The film prioritizes the voices of people impacted by these operations, exposing the unseen casualties and human cost of the war on terror.” — Kristin Feeley, interim director, Documentary Film and Artist Programs 

Check here for viewing options.

Enemies of the People (2010)

Director(s): Rob Lemkin, Thet Sambath

Producer(s): Rob Lemkin, Thet Sambath 

Enemies of the People is a gripping documentary that chronicles the 10-year quest of Cambodian journalist Thet Sambath to uncover the truth about the Killing Fields of Cambodia during the regime of Democratic Kampuchea. Through intimate interviews, audiences hear from those who perpetrated the gruesome massacres as they break a 30-year silence to give previously unseen testimony.

With the help of a grant from the Sundance Documentary Film Program in 2009, Enemies of the People had its world premiere at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, where Lemkin and Sambath received the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Prize.  

Check here for viewing options.

Reporter (2009)

Director: Eric Metzgar

Producer(s): Mikaela Beardsley, Steven Cantor

In the summer of 2007, New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof took a harrowing trip through the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to spotlight the growing humanitarian crisis, as he famously did with Darfur. Eric Metzgar’s documentary follows Kristof as he works to bring global attention to the conflict and desperate poverty surrounding the DRC but becomes painfully aware of the flaws of modern journalism.   

Check here for viewing options.

Reportero (2012) 

Director: Bernardo Ruiz

Producer(s): Bernardo Ruiz, Anne Hubbell, Patricia Benabe

As the U.S. government’s global war on drugs intensifies and the risks to journalists become more evident, Reportero follows veteran reporter Sergio Haro and his team at Tijuana-based newspaper Zeta as they investigate corruption in their neighborhoods and cover stories of organized crime. Director Bernardo Ruiz was a fellow for the 2011 Documentary Composers Lab and received a production grant in 2009.

“This 2012 film followed renowned Mexican journalist Sergio Haro’s efforts to document corruption in his home state of Baja. Haro passed away in 2017. The risks journalists face in Mexico have only increased since the film was made. However, Bernardo Ruiz’s unflinching and intimate portrait of Haro now stands as an inspiration for journalists and testament to Haro’s impact. Haro was posthumously awarded the National Journalism Award in 2021.” — Kristin Feeley, interim director, Documentary Film and Artist Programs  

Check here for viewing options.

While We Watched (2022)

Director: Vinay Shukla

Producers: Luke Moody, Kushboo Ranka

In addition to receiving the 2020 Sundance Institute | A&E Brave Storytellers Award, While We Watched participated in the 2021 Sundance Producers Summit. Their timely documentary follows Indian broadcast journalist Ravish Kumar for two years as he works to deliver fact-based stories while navigating an onslaught of fake news. As press freedom continues to disintegrate, Kumar finds himself at the receiving end of harassment and threats. 

“Equal parts character study, newsroom drama, and political horror show, While We Watched powerfully captures a crusade for truth and journalistic integrity by combining a quietly tense observational style with newscast clips that exemplify the increasingly polemical and hostile culture that celebrity news anchor Ravish Kumar is up against. Vinay Shukla creates something truly potent and riveting.” — Sara Glassberg, coordinator, Documentary Fund   

Check here for viewing options.

Writing With Fire (2021) 

Director(s): Rintu Thomas, Sushmit Ghosh

Producer(s): Rintu Thomas, Sushmit Ghosh 

In a male-dominated media landscape, journalists of New Delhi’s all-women Khabar Lahariya newspaper are willing to risk it all to cover political, social, and local news. Chief Reporter Meera and her team break traditions and grow from an underground network to an independent media empire. Directors Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh received a grant in 2017 and participated in the Catalyst program. The documentary premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and was later nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature Film.

“After watching the impactful Academy Award–nominated film Writing With Fire, you are certain to leave feeling inspired and galvanized about the power of collective storytelling. Double 2021 Sundance Film Festival award-winners Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh follow the bravery of India’s only all-women newspaper organization. With their phones and pens up, these resilient reporters are determined to make sure the news reaches their communities.” — Kat Schulze, program coordinator 

Check here for viewing options.

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