What to Watch: 25 Hidden Gems Supported by Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program Available to See Now 

A man is pointing a camera at a woman holding a large white poster. Another man is standing close to him looking on.

[Pictured: Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People]

By Stephanie Ornelas 

Over the past month, you’ve heard from members of our DFP team as they examine the history of the program over the last two decades. We shared several artists that should be on your radar in addition to the documentary shorts the program has helped bring to life.

A man sits at a computer editing while a woman points to the screen.
Director Naziha Arebi and Editor Rubin Daniels at the 2017 Documentary Edit and Story Lab.

Now, we’re continuing our Doctober series by highlighting some extraordinary films recommended for you to watch by the DFP team and supported through the program. These core members are also sharing some insight as to why they’re shining light on some of these artists and their projects.  

The films — which you can see right now through streaming services, by renting online, or visiting select theaters — might have gone under the radar for some, but their incredible stories will stay with viewers long after the credits roll.

No matter your go-to streaming service, there’s a documentary supported by the DFP somewhere hiding, just waiting to be found. 

Here are 25 to choose from: 

93Queen (2017 Documentary Film Grant)

Set in the Hasidic enclave of Borough Park, Brooklyn, Paula Eiselt’s film follows a group of tenacious Hasidic women who are smashing the patriarchy in their community by creating the first volunteer ambulance corps in New York City consisting only of women.  

“This is Paula Eiselt’s debut feature (she had Aftershock at the Festival this year). In an increasingly divisive political and cultural landscape, this film offers an inclusive and expansive lens onto female leadership,” says Kristin Feeley, Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program Deputy Director, via email.  

Eiselt received support from the DFP through a Documentary Film Grant and the Creative Producing Summit in 2017. (Available to stream on HBO Max and Kanopy)

500 Years (2014 Documentary Film Grant)

Pamela Yates’ film received support from the DFP through a Documentary Film Grant in 2014 and through the Creative Producing Summit in 2016. The film would go on to premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. 

This extraordinary documentary tells the story that led Guatemala to a tipping point in their history from the genocide trial of former dictator General Rios Montt, to the popular movement that toppled sitting President Otto Perez Molina. Focusing on universal themes of justice, racism, power, and corruption, the film tells the story from the perspective of the majority indigenous Mayan population.

500 Years, the final chapter in Pamela Yates’ extraordinary Resistance Saga trilogy chronicling Guatemala’s human rights struggles (When the Mountains Tremble, Granito: How to Nail a Dictator), is a profoundly inspiring work illustrating how justice must prevail,” says Bruni Burres, Senior Consultant for Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program, via email. (Available to stream on Kanopy)

Always in Season (2019 Sundance Film Festival)

Always in Season follows the tragedy of Lennon Lacy, who was found hanging from a swing set in North Carolina in August 2014. His death was ruled a suicide, though Lennon’s mother and family believe he was lynched. Jackie Olive’s film chronicles their quest to learn the truth as it takes a closer look at the lingering impact of more than a century of lynching Black Americans. 

“This is a work of staggering force and artistry whose relevance only increases with time,” explains Feeley. 

Before her film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2019, Olive received a Documentary Film Fund Grant from the DFP in addition to going through the 2018 Catalyst Forum and the 2017 June Documentary Edit and Story Lab. (Available to rent on Apple TV+)

Blowin’ Up (2017 Documentary Film Grant)

A team of rebel heroines navigates a broken criminal justice system, working to change the way women arrested for prostitution are prosecuted. The film celebrates acts of steadfast defiance and reveals the hurdles these women must face. Director Stephanie Wang-Breal received a Documentary Film Grant in 2017.  

“With ultimate care and beauty, this dream team of creatives (Stephanie Wang-Breal, Carrie Weprin, and Jonathan Oppenheim) reveal for us the unique humans that work within and outside of the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court,” says Maria Clement, Producing Lab and Artist Support Manager for Sundance Institue’s Documentary Film Program, via email. “Breal weaves between various women’s voices whose life experiences couldn’t be more different, but would be similarly deemed sex worker criminals without their advocates and this unique establishment. Through the artistry and intimate observational approach, we’re left with connection to the women at the core, rather than courtroom jargon, only hoping that more will take note.” (Available to rent Amazon Prime)

BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez (2012 Documentary Film Grant)

Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater’s film offers unprecedented access to the life, work, and mesmerizing performances of renowned poet, educator, and activist Sonia Sanchez, who describes herself as “a woman with razor blades between my teeth.” 

Sanchez first emerged as a seminal figure in the 1960s Black Arts Movement, going on to raise her voice in the name of Black culture, civil rights, and women’s liberation. The documentary features readings and jazz-accompanied performances of Sanchez’s work.

Goldwater and Attie received a Documentary Film Grant from the DFP in 2012. (Available to stream on Kanopy)

Call her Ganda (2018 Documentary Film Grant)

Call her Ganda follows the murder trial of Filipino transgender woman Jennifer Laude by a U.S. Marine, and the obstacles faced in the pursuit of justice by three women intimately invested in the case. An activist attorney (Virgie Suarez), a transgender journalist (Meredith Talusan), and Jennifer’s mother (Julita “Nanay” Laude) galvanize a political uprising and seek justice as they take on hardened histories of U.S. imperialism in the Philippines. 

Director PJ Raval received support for his film from the DFP through a Documentary Film Grant. (Available to stream on Amazon Prime; to rent on Vudu)

Camp Victory: Afghanistan (2009 Documentary Edit and Story Lab)

Carol Dysinger received support for Camp Victory: Afghanistan through two Documentary Film Grants and the Documentary Edit and Story Lab in 2009. She also participated in the 2010 Sundance Institute Film Series and the 2009 Creative Producing Summit.

The U.S. National Guard has been deployed to Afghanistan to train the Afghan National Army. The film follows several Afghan and American soldiers who, across the divide of language, culture, and religion, must accomplish a near impossible task: crafting a modern army to serve a struggling nation. (Available to stream on Amazon Prime and Roku)

Collective (2020 Sundance Film Festival)  

Alexander Nanau follows a team of journalists as they uncover healthcare fraud in the wake of a deadly nightclub fire in Bucharest, Romania. In 2015, a fire at Bucharest’s Colectiv club leaves 27 dead and 180 injured. Soon, more burn victims begin dying in hospitals from wounds that were not life-threatening. When a doctor blows the whistle to a team of investigative journalists, one revelation leads to another.

Nanau received support from the Documentary Film Program before his film screened at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. (Available to stream on Hulu; to rent on Vudu and Google Play)  

Come Hell Or High Water: The Battle For Turkey Creek (2011 Documentary Edit and Story Lab)

Leah Mahan received support from the DFP through the 2011 Documentary Edit and Story Lab and a Documentary Film Grant in 2010 for her film that follows the inspiring journey of Derrick Evans. A Boston schoolteacher, he returns to his native coastal Mississippi when the graves of his ancestors are bulldozed to make way for the sprawling city of Gulfport. Consumed by the effort to protect the community his great-grandfather’s grandfather settled as a former slave, he is on the verge of a breakthrough when Hurricane Katrina strikes the Gulf Coast. (Available to rent/buy at Amazon Prime)

Farmingville (2003 Documentary Composers Lab, 2004 Documentary Film Series)

After the shocking attempted murder of two Mexican day laborers in suburban Long Island, national attention is brought to the town of Farmingville, New York. Prospects for working with area contractors and landscapers had attracted more than 1,500 day laborers to town, raising tensions among some longtime residents. For nearly a year, filmmakers Carlos Sandoval and Catherine Tambini lived and worked in Farmingville to document the stories of town leaders, residents, day laborers, and activists. 

Carlos Sandoval and Catherine Tambini’s film received support from the Documentary Film Series in 2004, the Documentary Composers Lab in 2003, and a Sundance Documentary Film Grant in 2002. (Available to rent on Apple TV+)

Faya Dayi (2020 Documentary Film Grant)

Jessica Beshir’s film is a spiritual journey into the highlands of Harar, immersed in the rituals of khat, a leaf Sufi Muslims chewed for centuries for religious meditations — and Ethiopia’s most lucrative cash crop today. But however familiar the work is, some young people who have grown up in its shadow want more. They consider leaving home for something new, faraway, and, while perhaps more economically beneficial, lonelier and more isolating.

Beshir received funding from the Documentary Film Program through a Documentary Film Grant in 2020. (Available to watch on Criterion)

The Grown Ups (2016 Documentary Film Grant)

Maite Alberdi received support for her film in 2016 through a Documentary Film Grant and Sundance Institute’s Creative Producing Summit. 

The Grown Ups follows a group of friends with Down Syndrome who have been attending the same school for 40 years. All their teachers and parents who raised them are gone and they must now fight to get better jobs, to make money like any other person, and to learn to take care of themselves as adults. And they will do everything to prevent anyone from interfering with their adult dreams. (Available to stream on Netflix)

The Hard Stop (2014 Documentary Edit and Story Lab)

George Amponsah’s intimate documentary reveals the story, away from all press coverage, of Mark Duggan’s friends and family following his death. He was shot and killed in a “hard stop” police procedure in 2011, sparking the most violent riots in British history. 

Amponsah received a Documentary Film Grant in 2014 and 2015, and he participated in the Documentary Edit and Story Lab in 2014. (Available to watch on Criterion)

Herman’s House (2011 Documentary Edit and Story Lab)

Angad Bahla received support from the DFP in 2011 through the Documentary Edit and Story Lab, the Documentary Composers Lab, and a Documentary Film Grant for Herman’s House (formerly The House That Herman Built). The film captures the remarkable journey and friendship of Herman Wallace, who was imprisoned for over 30 years, and artist Jackie Sumell while she was examining the injustice of prolonged solitary confinement.

Angad Singh Bhalla, Ricardo Acosta, and Joe Bini at the 2011 Documentary Edit and Story Lab

Angad Bhalla uniquely frames the artistic collaboration between a New York artist named Jackie Sumell and Herman Wallace, who, at the time of the film, had been in solitary confinement on death row for decades,” says Feeley. “The film follows a project that began with Jackie asking Herman to design his ‘dream house.’ While the film lays bare the effects of our carceral system and unjust confinement, it simultaneously allows Herman and Jackie’s dreams to manifest through cinema.” (Available to stream on Kanopy, Fandor, and dafilms.com)

The Last Out (2018 Documentary Film Grant) 

In this documentary directed by Sami Khan and Michael Gassert, three young Cuban baseball players are pushed to their limits as they flee their homeland to chase their dreams of playing in the Major Leagues. 

“I’ll always remember watching The Last Out in a parking lot drive-in near Citi Field in Queens, New York during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic (the film was set to premiere in April 2020),” says Dominic Davis, Manager, Sundance Institute Documentary Fund, via email. “The screening and film spoke the truth of Cuban athletes caught in a web of geopolitics and dubious middlemen to the industry that benefits from their hard work and determination. The powerful message is grounded in Sami Khan and Michael Gassert’s empathetic portrayal of their protagonists, Victor, Carlos, and Happy, as they run through the gauntlet in pursuit of their dreams and a better life.”

Khan and Gassert received a Documentary Film Grant for their film in 2018. (Available to stream on PBS)

Nostalgia for the Light (2008 Documentary Film Grant)

Patricio Guzman’s documentary follows two different searches conducted in the Chilean Atacama Desert — one by astronomers looking for answers about the history of the cosmos, and one by a group looking for the remains of loved ones killed by Pinochet’s regime. Guzman received support from the DFP through a Documentary Film Grant in 2008. 

“Continuing to explore the effects in Chile from Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship, Patricio Guzmán takes us to Atacama, known for the world’s astronomical masterpiece observatory and the Chacabuco Mine prisons — the concentration camps instituted by Pinochet for political opponents,” says Burres. “Nostalgia for the Light  is breathtaking, highly intelligent, philosophical, deeply political, but also transcendent, cinematically.” (Available to stream on Hoopla, Kanopy; to rent on Apple TV+)

Of Fathers and Sons (2014, 2015, 2017 Documentary Film Grant)

Of Fathers and Sons premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and went on to win the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Documentary Competition. Leading up to his win, Talal Derki received a Documentary Film Grant in 2014, 2015, and 2017. 

In his film, Talal Derki returns to his homeland and gains the trust of a radical Islamist family. Sharing their daily life through the lens of his camera, he provides an extremely rare insight into what it means to grow up in an Islamic caliphate. (Available to rent on Amazon Prime, Vudu, and Google Play)

Outta the Muck (2018 Documentary Film Program)

Family, football, and the forgotten history of the Deep South come to life in Bhawin Suchak and Ira McKinley’s intimate portrait of generational struggle and resilience in Pahokee, Florida. Outta the Muck tells a story about the power of community, the echoes of trauma, and the strength of Black families in rural America. 

“Ira McKinley and Bhawin Suchak’s beautifully rendered, loving multi-generational portrait of Pahokee, Florida interweaves all of the elements of nonfiction, archive, interviews, and verite to create a singular cinematic work that is joyful and devastating all at once,” says Feeley. Suchak and McKinley received a Documentary Film Grant from Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program for their film in 2018. (Available to watch in select theaters)

Planet of Snail (2010 Documentary Film Grant) 

In Seung-Yun Yi’s film, a man named Young-Chan, who has been deaf and blind since childhood, learns to communicate and starts loving life in his own way. When Young-Chan meets Soon-Ho, who lives with her own physical disability, the two learn to communicate by softly tapping each other’s finger. The documentary follows the couple as they partake in everyday activities and move through life together. These scenes are accompanied by a poetic voice-over by Young-Chan, in which he reflects on his existence without sight and hearing. 

 In 2010, Yi received a Documentary Film Grant from Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program. (Available to stream on Kanopy)

The Silence of Others (2014 Documentary Film Grant)

After decades of silence, children stolen during Francisco Franco’s brutal dictatorship begin the search to find loved ones and confront the perpetrators. Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar’s project is a deeply personal account of Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy.

“This film acts as a document of a critical part of Spain’s history and had a profound effect in Spain when it was released that still reverberates today,” says Feeley.”

In addition to getting support from the DFP through a Documentary Film Grant in 2014, Carracedo and Bahar received support from the 2017 Creative Producing Summit, 2012 Time Warner Storytelling Fellowship, and 2011 Time Warner Storytelling Fellowship. (Available to stream on Netflix)

Sembene! (2015 Sundance Film Festival)

Sembene! focuses on the life of Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, considered to be the father of African cinema. In a career spanning 40 years, Sembene tasted the highs and the lows, only to reinvent himself with a powerful blend of documentary, French New Wave, and realism, creating films that shocked the sociopolitical power structures of the day.

Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman received support from the DFP’s Documentary Edit and Story Lab in 2012 and a Documentary Film Grant in 2008 and 2010. The film would go on to premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. (Available to rent on Vudu and Amazon Prime)  

Speed Sisters (2014 Documentary Edit and Story Lab; 2014 Creative Producing Documentary)

Four women stand behind a podium at the 2014 Sundance Institute Documentary Edit and Story Lab.
Jessica Devaney, Amber Fares, Helen Kearns, and Rabab Haj Yahya at the 2014 Documentary Edit and Story Lab

This film about the first-ever Palestinian women’s motor racing team received support from the DFP’s Documentary Edit and Story Lab and Creative Producing Documentary in 2014. Amber Fares also received a Documentary Film Grant for her film that same year.  

“This film is inspiring, thrilling, and made with deep care and collaboration. Speeds Sisters celebrates a group of badass, determined female race car drivers fighting for success, recognition in their profession, and their own happiness. It’s also a classic of the sports genre!” says Feeley. (Available to rent on Apple TV+)

Spettacolo (2017 Documentary Film Program)

In Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen’s documentary, villagers in a tiny Tuscan town come up with a remarkable way to confront their issues — they turn their lives into a play. Every summer, their piazza becomes a stage and residents of all ages play a part — the role of themselves. The annual tradition has attracted worldwide attention and kept the town together for 50 years, but with an aging population and a future generation more interested in Facebook than farming, the town’s 50th anniversary performance might be its last. The film received a Documentary Fund Grant from the Documentary Film Program. 

“Jeff Malmberg and Chris Shellen’s film, like the food and the people at the heart of the film, only gets better with age,” says Feeley. “It’s the story of a small town in Tuscany, Monticello, in a moment of transition. After 50 years, the townspeople struggle to carry on a tradition of writing and performing a play about their lives. It’s a subtle and devastatingly beautiful meditation on the role art can play in shaping and informing our collective identity.” (Available to stream on Roku)

Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People (2014 Sundance Film Festival)

This unique documentary screened at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival in the New Frontier section. Leading up to its premiere, Thomas Allen Harris received two Documentary Film Grants in 2008 and 2011. His project is an examination of the way Black photographers — and their subjects — have used the camera as a tool for social change from the time photography was invented to the present. 

“Thomas is a master storyteller. His films are deeply personal and political. Each film seeks to reimagine and restore aspects of African American diaspora history, identity and spirituality. The project that grew out of this film, the Digital Diaspora Family Reunion has continued for over ten years and amassed personal archives of thousands of images,” explains Feeley. (Available to stream on Tubi and Roku)

Wonders Are Many: The Making of Doctor Atomic (2007 Sundance Film Festival)

A still from “Wonders Are Many: The Making of Doctor Atomic”

Wonders Are Many: The Making of Doctor Atomic screened at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, but not before receiving two grants from the DFP program (2003, 2006). Jon Else’s film chronicles the creation of the monumental opera based on the mysterious “father of the atomic bomb,” Dr. Robert Oppenheimer. Drawing upon declassified documents, archival footage, and interviews, the film follows Oppenheimer, as his team prepares to detonate the world’s first atomic weapon. 

“Combining his cinematic roots in The Ring Cycle and the history of Robert Oppenheimer, it’s an electrifying behind-the-scenes countdown to opening night of an operatic rendition of the first detonation of the atomic bomb,” explains Carrie Lozano, Director of Documentary Film and Artist Programs. (Available to rent Amazon)

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