PARK CITY, Utah — In myriad ways, coming as it does in January, the Sundance Film Festival sets the stage for US cinema through the rest of the year. This is particularly true for documentaries — to which the festival is drawing attention this year by hosting a special screening of Summer of Soul, a film that premiered at the 2021 edition and went on to win that year’s Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. After two years of remote Sundances, the festival returns to in-person screenings for 2023, but it is maintaining an online component. This means that anyone can keep up with many of the latest premieres via streaming alongside all those who travel to Park City.
Several noticeable trends emerged this year. Less than a month before the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, films made about — sometimes amid — that long-running conflict are beginning to screen. Roman Liubyi’s Iron Butterflies investigates the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, and the steps the Russian government took to deny responsibility in the aftermath. Journalist Mstyslav Chernov’s 20 Days in Mariupol chronicles his time in the eponymous city during the early days of the invasion. The festival is also holding a special screening of Navalny, about the Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny, which premiered at last year’s Sundance.
In recent years, spearheaded by programmer Adam Piron, Sundance has also sought to expand its inclusion of Indigenous filmmakers, which manifests in 2023 in several noteworthy docs. For her first feature, Gush, prolific and talented short film director Fox Maxy crafts an autobiographical collage of home movies, animation, found footage, and more. The film is part of New Frontiers, the festival’s experimental section, which sadly has been significantly pared down this year. Murder in Big Horn, directed by Razelle Benally and Matthew Galkin, addresses the too-often neglected issue of unsolved femicides on reservations. Greenlandic/Canadian Inuk lawyer Aaju Peter is profiled in Twice Colonized, which follows her through various activist projects and personal tragedies. Bad Press focuses on a battle between the independent news outlet Mvskoke Media and the government of the Muscogee Nation.
One of Sundance’s most persistent nonfiction trends is the biography, and 2023 brings a new crop of works about artists, musicians, and actors. This year’s subjects include Michael J. Fox, Brooke Shields, Little Richard, Indigo Girls, and Judy Blume. The groundbreaking but elusive feminist sex educator Shere Hite leads her own film, while Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project sits down with the acclaimed poet for conversations about writing, race, and time. Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV is, incredibly, the first feature film about the vital video artist. Intriguingly, among these, there’s also an autobiography: Invisible Beauty, in which model turned agent Bethann Hardison looks back at her decades in the fashion business and her attempts to make it more inclusive and equitable for Black models and creatives.
Not all these films are available to watch online. But if you’re attending Sundance virtually, try to catch them during their viewing windows, and keep an eye on the others for eventual release.
The 2023 Sundance Film Festival continues virtually and in Park City, Utah, through January 29.