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Sundance Continues to Feed the Oscar Documentary Pipeline

Sundance documentaries are alive and well. And it looks like there’s some acquisition action this year, too. Which Sundance documentaries have the best shot at landing in Oscar contention this year? It helps to get bought early or to have an international footprint.

A rickety theatrical market for non-fiction features and a dwindling number of active documentary buyers meant that many Sundance 2023 films did not get picked up for distribution, or met serious delays before companies came through. As the top American film festival for docs, Sundance usually supplies as many as four out of the final five Oscar nominees each year. (This year, it was two.)

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And usually, by late summer, Oscar promotion is well underway. But last year, “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project,” which was rumored to be an HBO Documentary Films pickup for months, wasn’t announced until August 29, when other Sundance grads had been campaigning all summer.

One Sundance World Cinema entry built a following during the year: Pulitzer Prize-winner Mstyslav Chernov’s harrowing war journalist story “20 Days in Mariupol,” which won the Audience Award and went on to an Oscar nomination. It also boasted the international advantage, as the Academy’s international membership now represents more than 20 percent of the total voters. Chilean filmmaker Maite Alberdi was nominated for a second time for her moving Sundance entry “Eternal Memory” (MTV Documentary Films), which took home the Sundance World Cinema documentary jury prize.

Another foreign-language Oscar Documentary nominee, TIFF 2022 premiere “To Kill a Tiger” (National Film Board of Canada) shows how hard it is for rural folks in India to find justice for women in a deeply misogynistic society. Edgy hybrid Cannes Competition title “Four Daughters” (Kino Lorber), which shared the festival’s Best Documentary prize, made it into the documentary Oscar race. And NatGeo promoted its Venice debut, International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam Audience Award winner and IDA and Cinema Eye Honors Best Feature winner “Bobi Wine: The People’s President,” featuring the former presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu AKA Bobi Wine, who is still fighting the good fight against a vicious dictator in Uganda.

Left out were several American candidates, including Matt Heinemann’s Telluride debut “American Symphony,” starring Jon Batiste, and Davis Guggenheim’s Emmy-winning Sundance premiere “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie.” They were perhaps too populist and celebrity-oriented for the gravitas-seeking documentary branch, which is struggling not to let a delightful non-fiction like Netflix’s South African “My Octopus Teacher” slip through again.

Here are ten of Sundance 2024’s likeliest Oscar hopefuls, in alphabetical order. Other worthy Sundance entries could pick up support during the year.

A still from the documentary Daughters, directed by Angela Patton and Natalie Rae
“Daughters”Object & Animal, Epoch Films

“Daughters” (Netflix)

Rookies Natalie Rae and Angela Patton’s verité documentary tracks the state of America’s prison system by following incarcerated fathers who, if they manage to complete a 10-week counseling course, get to go to a Daddy-Daughter Dance. This event is precious because many prisons during the pandemic replaced live in-person visits with pay-per-view videos. Co-director Patton conjured this opportunity to reach out and touch someone, which yields four-hankie results, and won the Sundance Audience Award for U.S. Documentary as well as the overall Festival Favorite prize.

“Gaucho Gaucho” (acquisition title)

This stunningly photographed black-and-white Western won the Sundance U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Sound. Set in water-deprived Argentina cattle country, the non-fiction film was produced and directed by Americans Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw (“The Truffle Hunters”) who seek out endangered cultures and capture them on film. The cowboys, male and female, merge with their horses and fly when they run. One father teaches his young son the ways of the gaucho, like sharpening his enormous knife. In the film’s opening shot, a gaucho slowly gets up from his still-sleeping horse and coaxes him to stand. These moments are indelible.

“Ibelin” (Netflix)

Norwegian “The Painter and the Thief” director Benjamin Ree follows the compelling story of his fellow countryman Mats Steen, who suffered from a degenerative genetic condition that killed him at age 25 in 2014. When his parents found his blog and password, they learned about his online life inside the “World of Warcraft” game, where his character was called Ibelin. Ree uses animation, blogs, massive gameplay transcripts, and interviews with Steen’s WoW cohorts to bring Ibelin back to life.

“Luther: Never Too Much” (acquisition title)

Non-fiction veteran Dawn Porter (“Trapped”) thoughtfully traces via video footage and interviews the evolution of enigmatic and soulful singer Luther Vandross from the ’70s and “Sesame Street” through his death in 2005. He sang backup for the likes of Bette Midler and David Bowie (“The Young Americans”), sang lead on many R&B songs, and was a top vocal arranger, wrote commercial jingles, and finally, enjoyed a great career performing covers (The Carpenters’ “Don’t You Remember”) as well as his own songs (“This Close to You”).

Porter also captures the sadness of Vandross’ inability to crossover to the white mainstream — he was always relegated to R&B — and suggests that he may have been unable to find “Any Love” partly because he was gay at the wrong time. His music brought joy to many, but he was unable to find it. Porter is popular with the doc branch, but will Vandross play overseas?

“A New Kind of Wilderness” (acquisition title)

When she started filming the Payne family, Silje Evensmo Jacobsen had already covered for a decade Norwegian photographer Maria Payne’s blog and lifestyle. She and her husband Nik were maintaining a tiny sustainable farm in rural Norway, homeschooling four kids. But when Maria dies of cancer, the family must move into town and back to a more conventional life.

A still from Nocturnes by Anirban Dutta and Anupama Srinivasan, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
“Nocturnes”

“Nocturnes” (acquisition title)

High in the Eastern Himalayas, a young woman scientist tests her thesis: that hawk moths move to higher elevations as the temperature climbs. She watches the moths alight every night on a white cloth grid blasted by powerful lights that lure these delicate, beautiful creatures. Anirban Dutta and Anupama Srinivasan’s immersive film draws you into the dark forest wilderness, its buzzing insects and other myriad sounds. This eco-documentary is like a meditation.

“Porcelain War” (acquisition title)

Co-directed by American Brendan Bellomo and Ukrainian artist and Special Forces operative Slava Leontyev, who captures much of the footage and narrates, “Porcelain War” struggles to balance the delicate beauty of nature and porcelain art with the brutality of war. The Russian invasion forces Leontyev, his painter wife Anya, and their dog Frodo to leave their bucolic idyll in rural Crimea and move to the rubble-strewn city of Kharkiv, where Leontyev trains new recruits to use guns and his unit sends off camera-equipped drones, some colorfully painted by Anya, to drop bombs on Russian forces. The film won the Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. documentary section.

“Power” (Netflix)

Yance Ford (“Strong Island”) tackles the history of policing in America with help from voluminous archives and smart talking heads. What’s the root of our current police system? Chasing down escaped slaves, driving out indigenous people, and busting strikes. Who do the police protect and serve? Property owners. That history, Ford argues, underlies our national policing today. Clearly, Ford is probing an American issue.

“Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story” (Warner Bros. Discovery)

Swiss director Ian Bonhôte and Brit Peter Ettedgui (“McQueen”) sold their movie to a major studio, which happens to be the home of DC and Superman and is currently developing James Gunn’s “Superman: Legacy” reboot. “Super/Man” tells Reeve’s story via his three adult children and archive footage covering his life and films before and after his paralyzing accident. Despite its European pedigree, the documentary branch could choose to resist this American celebrity biopic.

“Will & Harper” (acquisitions title)

In the middle of the pandemic, Will Ferrell got some email news from a friend. Harper Steele, the one-time lead writer of “Saturday Night Live” and screenwriter of “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga,” was coming out as a trans woman. Director Josh Greenbaum documents the hilarious and moving two-week road movie of Ferrell and Steele’s trek across America that followed. Some of the folks they encounter are welcoming, others not so much. Does it hurt to be entertaining and serious at the same time?

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