Skip to main content

The Preview: Seven Documentaries to Catch at Sundance 2024

By Abby Sun

Still image from 'Agent of Happiness,' depicting three male figures seated on the steps of an ornate temple. All three are wearing robes in a deep maroon.

Still image from Agent of Happiness. Courtesy of DDA.

Sundance’s hold on worldwide documentary market trends remains in full force, even if its status is now based more on historical precedence than actual sales of films with available rights. For the upcoming 2024 edition (January 18–28), the programmers—headed again by Kim Yutani—seem to have steered clear of anything that might be as controversial as Jihad Rehab (2022; also known as The UnRedacted) or as ethically questionable as Beyond Utopia (2023). The film selection of Eugene Hernandez’s first edition as festival director leans into ongoing trends such as biographical documentaries of celebrities and musicians, but also includes the world premieres of a few filmmakers more used to debuting at international festivals. This year, the programmers also accelerated a recent trend of selecting A24 and platform titles into Sundance competition slots. Since our festival preview piece spotlights nonfiction that we consider discoveries, this preview won’t be covering works like Carla Gutierrez’s directorial debut Frida, Yance Ford’s sophomore feature Power, or Jazmin Jones’s hotly anticipated Seeking Mavis Beacon, which will be released respectively by Amazon, Netflix, and Neon. 

Agent of Happiness

Starting with a short preview of training for Bhutan’s happiness agents, this second feature from directing collaborators Arun Bhattarai and Dorottya Zurbó quickly shifts into a road-trip documentary that alternates between the personal life of a happiness agent, Amber, and the Bhutanese residents he meets through his surveying work. Agent of Happiness (fka Gross National Happiness) shows the interviews that Amber and his partner agent conduct to rate each resident on a happiness scale and their designated scores (which flash on screen—showing categories like “number of donkeys” and “sense of anger”) and punctures each interaction with patient observational detours with the people being interviewed. Borrowing a structure from casting documentaries, this warm and polished feature dutifully witnesses the lives of minoritized people in a small, insular country, asking pointed questions about “sense of belonging” and citizenship requirements. Like Bhattarai and Zurbó’s first feature, The Next Guardian (2017), Agent of Happiness should be winningly attractive for festival programming and platforms looking for crowd-pleasing yet creative fare.

Black Box Diaries

An IDA Enterprise Fund grantee, this debut feature from journalist and filmmaker Shiori Ito incorporates her own first-person video, detailing her search for justice after a sexual assault that exposes the deeply flawed Japanese legal system and how she became the face of the #metoo movement in Japan. We anticipate a high-stakes legal documentary thriller, as Ito faced death threats and intense public scrutiny over multiple years and secondary lawsuits are still ongoing. This film is produced by Ito and a team of experienced producers, including Eric Nyari, best known internationally for supporting adventurous arthouse fare and the recent spate of Ryuichi Sakamoto docs. 


While some might peg the inclusion of Nocturnes as part of a swell of eco-conscious Indian documentaries (last year’s Against the Tide and 2022’s All That Breathes lead the way), its lineage traces back further to the international phenomenon Honeyland (2019), which debuted at Sundance on its way to an Oscar nomination. This project from Delhi-based co-directors Anirban Dutta and Anupama Srinivasan was supported early on by Sandbox Films, a science-focused outfit best known for Fire of Love (2022) and with a strong track record in extremely polished creative documentaries. It’s been workshopped at Eurodocs, one of the most prestigious documentary training programs, and promises a poetic mixture of climate change science, Indigeneity, and human-insect interaction. Arthouse expectations should be solid, though the fervor around Indian documentaries and awards success might drive additional interest.

Realm of Satan

One of three documentaries in Sundance’s NEXT section for formally adventurous fare (the other two are Desire Lines and Seeking Mavis Beacon)—the section I anticipate the most every year—this directorial debut feature from Scott Cummings has style in spades. The film’s structure is a series of vignettes about the titular Satanists, and much like Cummings’s cult-favorite short, Buffalo Juggalos (2014), unfolds without the clarity or manipulation of voiceover. Instead, Realm of Satan’s pleasures patiently reveal themselves across the seasons and into realms of the supernatural. Sequences with animal familiars and sexual liaisons are particularly engrossing. The feature is produced by two indie doc darlings, Caitlin Mae Burke and Pacho Velez, creating a total profile that should attract arthouse buyers and copious festival play. Cummings’s partner and longtime collaborator Eliza Hittman (Never Rarely Sometimes Always) also picks up a co-producer and advisor credit. 

Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat

An acclaimed essay documentarian better known for crossing over into the art world than for making commercial fare, Johan Grimonprez’s latest feature nonetheless treads familiar subjects for Sundance programmers with a dash of American cultural imperialism. The published subject is the Eisenhower administration’s utilization of Black American jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Nina Simone, and Duke Ellington as a distraction from the CIA-led coup and subsequent assassination of Patrice Lumumba, post-colonial Congo’s great hope. But unlike Mads Brügger’s Cold Case Hammarskjöld (2019), Grimonprez’s project promises less gonzo journalism and audience trickery and more media critique, archival deep dives, and recordings of protests on the world stage—more relevant than ever as violence flares up again in the MENA region. We’re surprised this film isn’t premiering at the filmmaker’s old stomping grounds of IFFR or Berlinale, but perhaps that’s an indication of the project’s general audience potential.


The second documentary on this list made by journalists, Sugarcane is an urgent investigation into missing children at the same residential school co-director Julian Brave NoiseCat’s (Canim Lake Band Tsq’escen / Lil’Wat Nation of Mount Currie) family attended. This film takes an issue that has deeply affected Canadian national politics and public consciousness and extends it to the U.S., with an approach that vows to honor the descendants’ stories of resilience and hope as much as the wrongdoings of a settler colonial state. We’ve been reading NoiseCat’s longform writing on Native issues for the past few years, and together with an accomplished team headed by co-director Emily Kassie and producer Kellen Quinn (A Still Small VoiceTime), the impact potential of this doc has intrigued us since the project was awarded an IDA Enterprise Fund grant. Editor Nathan Punwar is best known to us for his work on Nadia Hallgren’s films (Civil: Ben CrumpBecoming), all sensitive observational portraits of figures in power and their myriad complications.


At the risk of seeming self-promotional, this third IDA Enterprise Fund grantee on our preview list is one of the eagerly anticipated nonfiction collaborations of the last few years. Surviving a story rights rush from streamers and other major platforms since Chris Smalls and the Amazon Labor Union won a unionization vote in spring 2022, this independent project is co-directed by Sundance alum Stephen Maing (Crime + Punishment) and Art of Nonfiction Fellow Brett Story (The Hottest August), with key creative positions filled by documentary mainstays with top previous credits lifting our expectations of the project as politically committed art. Producers Mars Verrone and Samantha Curley put together a team consisting of DP Martin DiCicco, who previously worked on The Hottest August and is also a director of creative projects that have extensive festival play, while editors Blair McClendon (Aftersun; After Sherman) and Malika Zouhali-Worrall (Through the Night) have worked on some of the most acclaimed films of recent years. With the ALU winning their first contract in April 2023, this story is expected to be the breakout political-drama-with-an-uplifting-ending film of the festival.

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.