What to Watch at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival: Innovative and Unique Documentaries

A small painted bird sculpture sits inside a hole in a concrete wall

By Aliese Muhonen

They say truth is stranger than fiction. As the 2024 Sundance Film Festival’s documentary lineup proves, true stories are as riveting, thought-provoking, and creatively told as the best fictional storylines. 

The Festival’s history has a long roster of impactful and inventive documentary premieres —  among them seven-year rock saga DIG! (2004; catch the 20th-anniversary extended version, DIG! XX, as part of the Festival’s 40th Edition Celebration Screenings), Antarctic odyssey March of the Penguins (2005), and the spine-tingling corruption thriller Icarus (2017) — and this year is no exception.

If you crave cutting-edge and ingenious approaches to nonfiction storytelling, this is the list for you. Each story breaks new ground in some element of its craft, and whether the films utilize animations, video games, clay models, or generative formats, they are unlike any documentary you’ve seen before — and you’ll want to see them again.

If you’re as stoked as we are, don’t forget to snag tickets here! Single Film Tickets are on sale as of January 11.

As We Speak (U.S. Documentary Competition) — In an illuminating exposé, J.M. Harper’s directorial debut examines law enforcement’s targeting of Black musicians, specifically by weaponizing rap lyrics as evidence in criminal cases. It’s a present-day problem with a 400-year past. The exploitation of Black lyrics, as we learn, is woven into American history across generations and artistic genres. Guided by Bronx rapper Kemba and supplemented with striking animations and interviews, the film pushes the cinematic envelope while exploring essential questions on First Amendment rights and the meaning of music. Available in person and online.

Eno (New Frontier) — This biographical documentary about musician-producer-artist Brian Eno is fittingly as unconventional as its subject: a creative visionary and perpetual multihyphenate. When he wasn’t collaborating with and producing albums for iconic performers like David Bowie and U2, Eno was composing avant-garde ambient and electronic albums and creating globally exhibited artistic installations. 

To cleverly depict Eno’s illustrious life, director Gary Hustwit and technologist Brendan Dawes developed software that generates a different documentary for each screening: Viewers will literally never see the same film twice. Mixing hours of interviews with Eno, previously unseen footage, and unreleased music, Eno is a unique cinematic collage that inventively honors the artist’s groundbreaking career. Available in person.

FRIDA (U.S. Documentary Competition) — While there’s a plethora of Frida Kahlo documentaries, veteran editor Carla Gutiérrez’s directorial debut, FRIDA, spotlights the legendary artist’s life and work from a perspective never seen before — that of Kahlo herself. Narrated with her own words from diary entries, essays, letters to loved ones, and print interviews and enhanced with animation inspired by her artwork, FRIDA reveals the rich inner world and artistic process of one of the 20th century’s most influential creative titans. Available in person and online.

Ibelin (World Cinema Documentary Competition) — When Norwegian gamer Mats Steen died in 2014 at age 25, his parents mourned multiple losses: that their son had passed away so young from a severe form of muscular dystrophy, and that his limited mobility had prevented him from making friends. But then the Steen family started receiving emails from mourners around the world. 

Through his World of Warcraft avatar, Ibelin, Mats had a more abundant life and richer relationships than they’d imagined. Director Benjamin Ree brings Mats’ vibrant digital alter ego to life, innovatively piecing together animated renditions of the gamer’s Warcraft interactions with blog entries. Mats’ story is ultimately an uplifting, deeply moving commentary on the power of community and connection. (Have your tissues handy!) Available in person and online.

The Mother of All Lies (Spotlight) — When Moroccan filmmaker Asmae El Moudir was growing up, personal photos were forbidden in her family’s household. Curious as to why, she inadvertently uncovers a tangled web of falsehoods. Determined to find the truth, El Moudir physically reconstructs her childhood neighborhood with clay models, prompting her family to examine (and acknowledge) a concealed past, where painful memories mirror tragic events in Morocco’s recent history.

A spellbinding excavation of buried trauma with a deeply personal and creative approach, The Mother of All Lies won the Un Certain Regard Best Director award at the 76th Cannes Film Festival. Available in person and online.

A small painted bird sculpture sits inside a hole in a concrete wall

Porcelain War (U.S. Documentary Competition) — Amid the violence and chaos of the Russia-Ukraine war, Ukrainian artists not only train to fight their oppressors, but defy the destruction of their society by creating intricate hand-painted figurines. Brought to life with lively animations that counter the surrounding horror, the beautiful sculptures embody the idea of art as a tool of survival and resistance, symbolizing the courageous spirit of those who stay and defend their country. The feature directorial debut of Brendan Bellomo and Ukrainian artist Slava Leontyev, Porcelain War is a poignant reminder that beauty prevails in the darkest places. Available in person and online.

Skywalkers: A Love Story (U.S. Documentary Competition) — Not your average romance, this riveting nail-biter follows a globe-trotting guy and gal who attempt to scale the world’s highest buildings, finding they’re a match made in heaven and cheating death in the process. It’s a heart-pounding thrill ride, from the spectacular and dizzying footage of the daredevils’ exploits (up to 2,230 feet high — hats off to director Jeff Zimbalist and the cinematographers), to the couple’s evading the constant risks of arrest and peril (definitely not a film for the faint-hearted or afraid of heights). With gripping suspense and jaw-dropping scenery, Skywalkers: A Love Story must be seen to be believed. Available in person and online.

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