9 must-see documentaries premiering at Sundance this year

Stills from documentaries "Agent of Happiness," "Will & Harper," and "Black Box Diaries" at Sundance Film Festival 2024

Sundance Film Festival is celebrating its 40th year in Park City, Utah with a line-up that includes stand-outs like Saoirse Ronan’s “Outrun,” Pedro Pascal’s “Freaky Tales,” the Kristen Stewart double feature “Love Me” and “Love Lies Bleeding.”

In addition to its much-anticipated dramas, comedies, and animated films, Sundance also hosts a slate of documentaries that take viewers around the world, exploring themes of racial justice, environmental impact, grassroots activism, and so much more. 

Good Good Good is on the scene for Sundance 2024, with fingers crossed that these nine must-see documentaries will be scooped up by theater distributors and streaming services in the coming months. 

Documentaries Premiering at Sundance 2024

Daughters

(United States, 102 min.)

A still from the movie "Daughters," where a little girl's feet are on top of her father's during a dance
Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Directors Natalie Rae and Angela Patton — CEO of the nonprofit Girls For A Change — follow four young girls as they count down the days until a Daddy Daughter Dance with their fathers, who are incarcerated in a Washington, D.C. jail. 

“‘Daughters’ meaningfully challenges many stereotypes around incarceration and serves as a poignant reminder that maintaining family bonds can be both healing and empowering,” noted Sundance programmer Ania Trzebiatowska.

IGUALADA

(Colombia/United States/Mexico, 114 min.)

A still from "Igualada" showing Francia Marquez looking down and smiling
Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

On the streets of La Toma, Colombia and beyond, filmmaker Juan Mejía Botero shines a spotlight on the historic presidential campaign of Francia Márquez, a beacon of social and environmental justice and fearless reclaimer of the derogatory label “Igualada:” someone who dares to act as though they have equal rights to those who have systematically oppressed them. 

“Márquez’s resonant slogan, ‘I am because we are,’ rings through gatherings, galvanizing the rural and Afro-Colombian communities Márquez is fighting for, and echoing through the growing number of younger Colombians inspired by her message,” wrote programmer Stephanie Owens. 

Will & Harper

(United States, 114 min.)

A still from "Will & Harper" featuring Will Farrell and Harper Steele sitting in a wide open plain
Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

In Josh Greenbaum’s earnest doc, best friends Will Ferrell and Harper Steele enter a new chapter in their 30-year friendship after Steele comes out as a trans woman. The two laugh and talk their way across middle America as Ferrell is reintroduced to his best friend. 

Program contributor Cameron Asharian hailed the documentary as “an exploration of both silliness and strife, a sincere facet of the trans experience audiences rarely witness, and an affirmation of the unbreakable bonds of friendship.” 

Black Box Diaries

(Japan/United States/United Kingdom, 95 min.)

A still from "Black Box Diaries" showing a side profile of Shiori Ito
Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

After being sexually assaulted by a prominent offender, director and journalist Shiori Ito documents the arduous journey of trying to hold them accountable as she navigates the outdated misogynies of Japan’s judicial system. 

“Shiori Ito came forward to challenge her high-profile abuser despite knowing the risks,” commended Trzebiatowska. “Her bravery meant hope for others and the prospect of real change to a broken system. 

As We Speak

(United States, 95 min.)

A still from "As We Speak" of rapper Kemba in a recording booth
Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

In his feature debut as a director, J.M. Harper follows Bronx rapper Kemba down a rabbit hole, exploring and condemning the way the US criminal justice system has wrongfully used artistic lyrics as a means of criminal evidence for decades. 

“J.M. Harper’s self-assured directorial debut unfolds like an original odyssey, shedding light on the intersection between the weaponization of rap lyrics and threats to freedom of speech,” observed Owens.  

The Battle for Laikipia

(Kenya/United States, 90 min.)

A still from "The Battle for Laikipia" where an Indigenous rancher looks out onto the land
Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Co-directors Daphne Matziaraki and Peter Murimi team up to tackle and catalog the ongoing injustices against Indigenous ranchers at the hands of landowners on the wildlife conservancy of Laikipia.  

“Weaving together themes of environmentalism, colonialism, and conservatism, the film delicately showcases the impact of these crucial topics on the Indigenous farming community of Kenya’s Laikipia region,” praised program contributor Bobbi Broome. 

Ibelin

(Norway, 95 min.)

A still from "Ibelin" of Mats Steen playing games at his desk
Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Norwegian filmmaker Benjamin Ree memorializes the life of Mats Steen, a gamer who passed away at 25 from a degenerative muscular disease. Ree peels the layers back on a surface-level story about an isolated gamer and finds an outpouring of love from people around the world who befriended Steen online.  

“Mats’ parents' deepest remorse was the thought of their son never experiencing love and friendships,” wrote Owens. “But Ree offers an endearing and innovative portrait of Mats’ abundant life through World of Warcraft, underscoring how community and soulful relationships can transcend the boundaries of the physical world.” 

Agent of Happiness

(Bhutan/Hungary, 94 min.)

A still from "Agent of Happiness," where a man drives a motorcycle and a woman rides behind him, her hands in the air, smiling
Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Director-cinematographer team Arun Bhatterai and Dorottya Zurbó tell the story of Amber, a Bhutanese government agent who is sent to measure the happiness levels of people living in the Himalayan mountains. Along the way, Amber looks inward for his own happiness. 

Trzebiatowska said that the film “resonates as a heartfelt exploration of happiness in the face of adversity” and becomes “a beautifully realized reminder to count our blessings.” 

Union

(United States, 94 min.)

A still from "Union," in which Amazon union leader Matt Swails holds up a piece of paper to block the sun
Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Co-directors Stephanie Maing and Brett Story chronicle the efforts of current and former Amazon employees in the Amazon Labor Union as they try to build momentum for their cause and unionize against one of the biggest corporations in the world. 

“[The directors] track exhilarating victories and demoralizing setbacks along the way, but foremost spotlight the far-reaching ability of collective action to inspire hope and bring self-determination to workers who’ve long felt disenfranchised and powerless,” noted senior programmer Basil Tsiokos.

Header images courtesy of Sundance Institute

Article Details

January 19, 2024 9:02 AM
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