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The Preview: Nine Documentaries to Catch at Tribeca 2023

By Abby Sun

Still from 'Q.' Eyes closed, Hiba's face is softly lit against a light background, with a tear streaming down her cheek.

Secure in its June slot (June 7-18, 2023), and without the gravitational balance of the Tribeca Film Institute’s artist support and funding programs, Tribeca Festival’s traditional coziness with corporate sponsors has proliferated in recent years (and surely must also be pandemic-related). The film selections mostly reflect this unfortunate industry-wide trend. But between the celebrity- and music-driven biodocs that stuff Tribeca’s lineup, the festival also boasts stateside premieres of hotly anticipated creative documentaries, exciting debuts from independent filmmakers, and one of the best-curated film festival immersive sections in the world. For this recommendations list, we pulled together a mix of nonfiction projects that we’re anticipating will become the festival’s discoveries.

Apolonia, Apolonia

Winner of the top prize at IDFA last year, this feature-length documentary takes a beautifully longitudinal approach to depicting the story of a young painter, Apolonia Sokol. Raised in an underground Bohemian theater in Paris, friends with all sorts of radical young artists (including Oksana Shachko, a founder of the feminist action group Femen), and lovingly filmed by director-cinematographer Lea Glob, Apolonia’s personal and professional lives are compellingly conveyed through long vérité scenes and Glob’s insightful voiceover. Midway through the film, the filmmaker’s and protagonist’s stories become interwoven, flipping the question of who is influencing who. After co-directing the boundary-pushing Olmo and the Seagull (2015, with Petra Costa) and Venus (2016, with Mette Carla Albrechtsen), Glob turns potential tragedies into intimate triumphs.

Break the Game

This unique take on a desktop documentary or screenlife film spends most of its runtime as a Twitch livestream, drawing from the archived streams of Narcissa Wright, an influential Zelda speedrunner who came out as trans in 2015 and has been subsequently subjected to online harassment. Despite the ubiquity of livestream culture elsewhere in the world, in the U.S. livestreams are mostly still limited to gaming and gamer-adjacent streams. First-time director Jane M. Wagner approaches Narcissa’s comeback attempt with compassion and hard insights, drawing from thousands of hours of Narcissa’s Twitch livestreams. Crucially, this project incorporates both the streams and—unlike other livestream documentaries such as Shengze Zhu’s essential Present.Perfect (2020)—the onscreen text of chat. There’s no other documentary project as poised to break out as the first real chronicle of the parasocial pitfalls of Twitch and the intense subculture of speedrunning.

Breaking the News

This high-stakes documentary follows the newsroom of The 19th, a nonprofit news agency founded by veteran journalists Emily Ramshaw and Amanda Zamora, as its women, nonbinary, and LGBTQ+ reporters focus on stories that impact women under fire in Trump’s America. Helmed and recorded by a dynamic trio of independent filmmakers—Heather Courtney (Where Soldiers Come From, 2011), Chelsea Hernandez (Building the American Dream, 2019), and Princess Hairston (Tracing the Hairstons; she is also an experienced doc editor)—this ITVS-funded feature looks poised to join the pantheon of great newsrooms docs.

The Fury

Found in Tribeca’s New Voices immersive competition for boundary-pushing XR creators, this two-channel video installation and accompanying VR-based 360 video is the latest offering from acclaimed photographer and filmmaker Shirin Neshat (Women Without Men, 2009). Centering on the post-detention psychological state of a fictionalized character, this project continues Neshat’s interest in excavating the harsh realities of women living under Iranian religious fundamentalism, which has been her life’s work since her self-imposed exile. Neshat’s films and video installations are uncompromising, and this new project promises more of the same haunting brutality. With VR headsets often in short supply at Tribeca Immersive, look to experience this project on its museum tour after Tribeca, starting with Montreal’s PHI Centre. 


After all the hubbub surrounding Tár and the audience elation of Sundance crowd-pleaser Pianoforte (on the International Chopin Piano Competition), this documentary spotlights real-life female conductors, who are less horny dictators and more steady guides of their ensembles. After a quick recap of the sad status of women conductors of the world’s major symphonic orchestras (practically nonexistent) and the structure of the new La Maestra Competition (just over a dozen candidates selected from applicants all around the world), the rest of this competition-doc follows the preparation for and rounds of the second edition, held in 2022. Without a fixation on the gendered imbalance in their chosen profession, Maggie Contreras' debut feature ably makes an entertaining case for the necessity of projects like La Maestra, though the intersectional particularities of race and harassment are (mostly) unaddressed. While we wish that we the performances were more sustained instead of fleeting clips, the music (with a focus on female composers like Clara Schumann) and its maestras are a winning combination.


This long-gestating debut feature from Lebanese-American filmmaker Jude Chehab is beautifully lensed (by her), sensitively edited by Fahd Ahmed (her husband), and a total family affair. Its powerful self-reflexive examination centers Chehab’s mother, Hiba, and other female family members’ involvement with the Qubaysiat, the largest secretive women’s Muslim community in the world, with many of the trappings of a cult, and its mysterious leader, the Anisa. Through conversations with Hiba about her former regimented life and the fissures it created with Chehab’s father, and an incredible archival section of a hijab party, this poetic film extends a recent trend of young female documentarians tackling intergenerational trauma and the things that go unsaid in all of our families. The religious themes of the film are portrayed with delicacy and care. We look forward to many more of these films to come, and to Chehab’s future work.


This portrait of Richland, Washington, is organized around vignettes with the town’s remaining denizens, who clean up the land next to a nuclear site, and who used to produce plutonium. As the search for “clean” energy continues to be of leading environmental concern, this sobering essayistic film promises a philosophical and thoughtful look at recent political changes and a community’s reckoning with its past. This doc also features the poems of Kathleen Flenniken, a native of Richland, whose second poetry collection Plume (2012) focuses on the promises and legacy of the nuclear age. Directed by Irene Lustig, whose introspective works have morphed over the decades from feminist archival unearthings (The Motherhood Archives, Yours in Sisterhood) to a focus on American towns uncommonly affected by human foibles (Contents Inventory), this film promises a dose of fortifying structural gravitas amid Tribeca’s celebrations of celebrity.

The Space Race

The latest offering from prestige documentary powerhouse National Geographic Documentary Films mixes archival footage and present-day interviews with the first Black astronauts in a feature that mixes cultural milestones, Afrofuturist thought, and stories of racial injustices in a milieu of progress. Co-directed by MTV/music-video crossover Diego Hurtado de Mendoza and powerhouse doc director/producer Lisa Cortés (who produced Invisible Beauty, also in Tribeca’s official selection), and written by the current go-to documentary scriptwriter Mark Monroe (too many films to list), this doc allures with the promise of Nat Geo’s 2022 all-archival breakout hit, Fire of Love, with present-day implications. 

A Revolution on Canvas (Untitled Nicky Nodjoumi)

Former Tribeca programmer and longtime documentarian Sara Nodjoumi has made a respected career producing the works of German-American filmmaker Till Schauder, who is also her husband. After an early short film, Nodjoumi finally returns to the directorial role with this feature debut, which is described as a mix of documentary thriller (concerning the disappearance of 100 “treasonous” paintings) and vérité portraiture (the painter, who is not only Sara’s father but also the acclaimed exiled Iranian artist Nicky Nodjoumi, now represented by Helena Anrather, a relatively new gallerist whose tastes trend towards the international and conceptual). With the backing of HBO Documentary Films and co-directed with Schauder, whose previous collaborations with Nodjoumi also include the entertaining and politically insightful rap-exile-fatwa portrait When God Sleeps (2017), this project promises more of what these filmmakers do best.

Abby Sun is IDA’s Director of Artist Programs and Editor of Documentary. She is a 2022 Warhol Foundation Curatorial Research Fellow and formerly was Curator of the DocYard and Editor of MIT Open Documentary Lab’s Immerse.