The 35 feature documentaries heading to this year’s Sundance Film Festival address a wide array of issues, including the U.S. maternal-mortality crisis (Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee’s “Aftershock”); the battle over control of women’s bodies (Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’ “The Janes”); corporate greed (Rory Kennedy’s “Downfall: The Case Against Boeing”); and climate change (Rachel Lears’ “To the End”).
But this year’s nonfiction lineup also includes several portrait documentaries: Kanye West (“jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy”), Bill Cosby (“We Need to Talk About Cosby”), Sinéad O’Connor (“Nothing Compares”) and Princess Diana (“The Princess”) are among the many famous and infamous figures being explored.
Clarence “Coodie” Simmons and Chike Ozah’s “jeen-yuhs” is arguably the most anticipated doc heading to Park City. The three-parter boasts 21 years of never-before-seen footage from the rapper. Simmons says after meeting West 20-some years ago, he realized that “this dude was about to be one of the biggest entertainers ever. So, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to do a “Hoop Dreams” documentary on this man.’”
Amy Poehler and Eva Longoria Bastón are making their doc debuts with two portrait docs — “Lucy and Desi” and “La Guerra Civil,” respectively. While Poehler examines comic icon Lucille Ball, Longoria Bastón investigates the 1990s rivalry be- tween boxers Oscar De La Hoya and Julio César Chávez.
Unlike recent years, the 2022 Sundance doc slate is not chock-full of films that already have distribution from A-list, veteran filmmakers. Instead, this year’s lineup is full of docs looking for a distributor, directed by Sundance alumni, first-time filmmakers and known directors who have never been invited to the fest.
In reversing the trend of programming films that already have distribution and inviting fresh faces to the festival, some find Sundance is going back to its roots.
“Sundance has had a lot of changes in its organization in recent years,” says Kathryn Everett, head of film at XTR, a production company with six docs at the 2022 festival. “There’s a lot of new programmers who have been promoted who I think have these fresh perspectives and definitely, almost ironically, it feels like this new group of programmers decided to really focus on discovery.”
Creating a marketplace more inclusive of diverse and experienced voices who have not had access to certain resources became a major talking point in the documentary community last July. That’s when Emmy-winning doc filmmaker Geeta Gandbhir publicly asked why two white men — Matthew Heineman and Matthew Hamachek — had been selected to direct an HBO doc about Tiger Woods.
“As a programming team, we’ve made a conscious decision to try to be more aware of our blind spots and to really interrogate authorship questions in particular,” says Basil Tsiokos, Sundance senior programmer. “Meaning, who is making the film? Why are they making the film? What is their relationship to what is in the film? Is this film coming from within the community that’s being represented? And if it’s not, is there still a compelling reason why this is the right person to be telling this film?”
Reid Davenport’s first feature doc, “I Didn’t See You There,” is one example of a film heading to Sundance with a director with a deep connection to the work.
“Reid, who happens to be in a wheelchair, is the right person to tell the story because it’s a very personal film about the invisibility and visibility of disability,” Tsiokos says. “We noticed that and recognized that his is a voice that we want to support and there’s a story that he’s telling that is really interesting.”