This year’s documentary programming at the Sundance Film Festival was a mixed bag. There were some major disappointments and even an ongoing embarrassment. A few of the films I watched in both the competition and the premieres sections were just plain weak. But I also saw a number of very good films and maybe one or two I’d call exceptional achievements. I wish I could have reviewed them all on their own, but this late list is the next best thing: a sort of highlight reel of the handful or so of docs I’d actually recommend.
The 6 Best Documentaries of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival
All That Breathes
It’s so rare that a documentary can capture an entire world in the span of a feature film. I mean the entire spatial context of the story being told. Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes shows us the micro and the macro of the environment of brothers Saud and Nadeem and their cousin Salik, who spend their spare time rescuing and treating black kites — birds they believe to be sacred. Around them is a city in natural and civil turmoil. Yet there’s a serenity to the film. It’s not an issue doc, though it’s no less serious or urgent in what it’s communicating.
This doc proves even nonfiction films should make us think of how they’re about as much as, if not more than, what they’re about. The cinematography here (under the leadership of DP Ben Bernhard) is not just visually stunning but deliberate in its service to world-building and storytelling. All That Breathes could have just been simple cinematic reportage of the story of Saud and Nadeem, but it’d be little more than a visual adaptation of the New York Times article seen published during the filmmaking. Sen has made something far more timeless.
There is nothing “great” or “wonderful” about the legacy of slavery in America, not in any of the historical or artistic remnants and reflections. Margaret Brown’s Descendant doesn’t present a great story or a wonderful representation of descendants of the last stolen Africans to be brought over to this country. But it is an important story and a transcendent film work sharing that story. Is there joy to be found on screen? Perhaps, but it’s in the satisfaction of the discovery of the remains of the Clotilda and the concrete acknowledgment of its history.
Descendant reminds me of the films of survivors of abuse that focus on those people, rather than the perpetrators, and indeed treat them as survivors rather than victims. This is a film about the survivors of slavery in America, which is an ongoing story of abuse, as the descendants on both sides of the act of slavery continue to feel its effects hundreds of years later. Brown continues to showcase stories centered on her hometown of Mobile, Alabama, in a way that is particular but never circumscribed. This is a big story within a smaller one.
Fire of Love
Of all the films I saw “at” Sundance this year, Fire of Love is the one I keep thinking about the most, for better or worse. Do I like it as much, in these thoughts, as I did while watching it? Is it really a great film? Maybe I need to watch it again each time I want to make a claim on it. This is a well-edited visceral experience of older footage that shouldn’t just be accepted as beautiful and amazing. Because it’s also, as it turned out, quite dangerous. Of course, we may consider the footage and its creators as multiple things at once.
Married volcanologists Maurice and Katia Krafft were ultimately heroes as much as they were reckless romantics. They were adventurers and artists in addition to being substantial science professionals. They were dynamos, and their output remains dynamic. Director Sara Dosa has molded something new and narrative-driven out of that output, and it’s certainly good stuff, and I don’t want to dismiss the package, but I also want to acknowledge the original material that is maybe most responsible for the wonder we feel in watching the doc.
A House Made of Splinters
There are a lot of documentaries like A House Made of Splinters where the filmmaker doesn’t seem to have a point of view. Just filming poor children, offering viewers poverty porn, and not even interjecting when the kids are committing crimes or breaking rules. There are ongoing ethical debates about observational cinema of this kind that I won’t get into here, but even if I can’t tell if director Simon Lereng Wilmont is as concerned with his subjects as he is with the film he’s put them in, there’s a definite guiding perspective to that film story.
A House Made of Splinters embeds us in a temporary shelter for children removed from unfit families and homes in Ukraine. Some of them may be placed in foster care, others will be sent back to their parents if situations are improved or to a relative willing to take them in. For the most part, Wilmont just shares the experience of a handful of these children, not through their eyes but respectfully within their sphere of understanding. For further context, though, there is some voiceover from interviews with staff that is overlayed throughout the film.
With a lot of the children, we learn their mothers and/or fathers are alcoholics, effects of the war and the economy, and other issues, but it’s not about where they’ve come from so much as it’s about the current assistance they’re getting and relationships they’re making now. There is a temptation to want to know what becomes of the children we are introduced to, and that’s a difficult problem to avoid with films that follow specific characters but aren’t intended to be about them as anything but a study sample at the enclosed time of filming.
At the start of his eponymously titled documentary, Alexei Navalny tells director Daniel Roher to make the film a thriller, not just a platform for its subject — especially a posthumous one. Fortunately, Navalny is still alive, though he has now been imprisoned in Russia for a year by the time of the film’s premiere. When Navalny was being interviewed for the documentary, he was in Germany recovering from being poisoned in a state-approved (possibly as high up as Putin) attempted political assassination. And fortunately, Roher took Navalny’s advice.
While not thoroughly an exhilarating watch, Navalny is as thrilling as it gets with experiential documentaries. There is one sequence, in particular, that rivals the hotel-set whistleblowing bit from Citizenfour as far as making us feel almost like we’re there in the room where it happens witnessing actual history in the making and experiencing it as edge-of-your-seat entertainment. There are some slower parts early on as we’re introduced to Navalny, though, and yet we never get to know him enough as a person and political hero as opposed to just a protagonist in this incredible true thriller story. But I guess that’s what he wanted.
When it comes to archival documentaries, there tend to be two varieties. There are films that utilize archival material as mere illustrative tools, without specific or exact value, and oftentimes that footage can seem randomly chosen or picked from a limited stock. Then there are the films like Fire of Love that are so specific in their footage choice, typically from a single source, that they can come off as just a re-modeling of the material, using it rather literally and for a story about that material or a story related to that material.
Sierra Pettengill is a master of archival material, whether she’s serving as an archival producer on others’ films or, now, making documentaries of her own. She is precise in her selection of footage, but it’s not so much to showcase that material as it is to spotlight, repurpose, and recontextualize it for a story that involves — but is also about more than — that material. Riotsville, U.S.A. is not simply a documentary about the titular fictional town used for training by the US military or the footage that exists of that town. It’s much bigger.
However, like last year’s Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), which is about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival and the never-seen concert film capturing that moment as well as a greater discussion of Black history and culture within the context of that footage, and vice versa, Riotsville, U.S.A. is a phenomenal history lesson that connects past and present. It uses its central archival footage, which could have otherwise been presented by a lesser filmmaker as just what it is, for something that’s so much more.
Honorable Mentions from Sundance 2022
Landing outside my six picks are two documentaries that I still want to recommend. They are the only other two that I would encourage anyone to watch, so I didn’t want to leave them entirely unrecognized along with the docs I saw that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone. I won’t name the worst docs I saw, but you can locate them within my Letterboxd diary if curious.
There is nothing really remarkable or memorable about the filmmaking here, but Aftershock is a good example of a documentary that doesn’t need to be anything more than its very important subject matter. Directed by Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee, the feature concisely and sufficiently communicates the severity of the problem of America’s maternal mortality rate, particularly among Black women. It’s an effective tear-jerker of an issue doc that moves while it informs, and it doesn’t let anything more than what it needs to be to get in the way.
Last Flight Home
It’s hard for me to measure this in a competitive manner as being one of the best or not. It’s such a personal and intimate share from director Ondi Timoner that I want to recognize it and recommend it without breaking down its craft too much. I do say more in my review of Last Flight Home, however, including my thoughts on what makes it special and stand out among other docs of its kind. Because of how much Timoner welcomes us into the experience of her father’s final days, it feels too close to evaluate, other than as worth sharing further.