Everyone from the academy to streaming services splits cinema into two buckets: movies (comedy, romance, horror, whatever) and documentaries, lumped into one unholy pile. Besides being obviously reductive, the division is false: Nonfiction movies can be comedies or romances or horror or any other genre, and they can create new indescribable genres, too. But American audiences still tend to be fed documentaries of only a few types: true crime stories, cult exposés, hagiographies, and educational disquisitions full of talking heads.
There’s more than that to nonfiction. And though plenty of star-driven, lightweight biographies show up at Sundance — famous folk on the carpet create much-needed social-media attention — there’s a lot of other nonfiction on offer, some of which will make its way to theaters and streaming services over the next year or two. A couple of lucky films may even eventually make their way into Oscar contention.
Documentaries at this year’s Sundance, which concluded Sunday, ranged across the genre map, often playfully mixing up conventions. But it was striking how often a particular thread kept popping up: the human longing to communicate with the dead, and the lengths — technological and otherwise — to which we’ll go to make it happen.
That was the theme of “Love Machina” and “Eternal You,” which feel picked by the programmers to complement one another. “Love Machina” (directed by Peter Sillen) is a romance looking at the efforts of the married couple Martine and Bina Rothblatt to create a robotic replica of Bina, powered by artificial intelligence and an extensive database of her thoughts, speech and emotions, that can communicate with her descendants when she is gone. “Eternal You” (directed by Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck) takes a broader, more analytical look at the burgeoning market for “afterlife technology” designed to do what the Rothblatts hope to accomplish: let people communicate with their loved ones after death using A.I. If that sounds like a “Black Mirror” episode, you’re right — and some “Eternal You” participants note the humanity-altering danger in this quest.
Yet, as the eminent sociologist Sherry Turkle points out onscreen, what we see in these efforts is A.I. offering what religion once did: a sense of an afterlife, a quest for meaning, the feeling of connecting to transcendence. One of the festival’s best documentaries, the sociological portrait “Look Into My Eyes,” taps into this same longing from a more mystical direction. Directed by Lana Wilson, the film drops audiences into the lives of several New York City psychics. The clients are hoping to communicate with the beloved dead through a literal rather than technological medium. (One participant helps people communicate with their pets, some of whom are still living.) But the focus is on the psychics themselves, the reasons they’ve come to their work, and what they believe they’re actually doing in their sessions — and the film is marvelously nuanced and fascinating in its examination. Is this performance? Is it “real”? And if it brings peace to the living, does it matter?
Other documentaries centered on people trying to connect with one another across social barriers, like the much-loved “Will & Harper,” featuring Will Ferrell. There was the astounding, rebellious “Union,” directed by Brett Story and Stephen Maing, about the Amazon Labor Union’s organizing work at the JFK8 fulfillment center on Staten Island. It’s a radically observational documentary, capturing years of the effort amid the complex dynamics of solidarity, with working-class New Yorkers putting in the time alongside young organizers who take jobs at the center explicitly to lead the unionization campaign. And it’s brilliant.
“Sugarcane,” a sobering community portrait directed by Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie, tracks the fallout from the Roman Catholic Church’s residential school for Indigenous children in Canada by tracing generational trauma. Instead of preaching about the topic, the directors let their subjects slowly fill in the outlines while reminding us that these same stories have been replicated across North America, and have only barely begun to be investigated. On the flip side, Shiori Ito’s memoirlike “Black Box Diaries” chronicles the director’s bold and brutal investigation of her own sexual assault at the hands of a prominent Japanese journalist. The ways the investigation is thwarted by the powerful are a damning statement about why, and how, it’s so difficult for such cases to be resolved. (Ito won her case, but the problems are much bigger than Japan.)
And I can’t stop thinking about the remarkable “Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat” (by Johan Grimonprez), a sprawling film that’s a well-researched essay about the 1960 regime change in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the part the United States, particularly the C.I.A., played — especially in harnessing the cultural cachet of jazz musicians, often without their knowledge, to promote America’s image abroad.
All of these movies are worth seeking out as soon as they’re available. But I’ll tell you the truth: The documentary that feels most destined to live in my memory is the first one I saw this year at Sundance, a genre-defying project by any definition. “Ibelin,” directed by Benjamin Ree, is about Mats Steen, a Norwegian who died in 2014, at age 25, from a rare, degenerative genetic condition. He left behind a blog and a password, and when his parents logged on to post about his death, they discovered something amazing: He had a rich community and life in his World of Warcraft guild, where he played as a character named Ibelin.
Ree employed animators to recreate scenes from Steen’s World of Warcraft life, drawing on a huge archive of transcripts detailing his conversations and activities. Ree also visits some of Steen’s friends in real life, who range across Europe and have immensely moving stories to tell. An excellent pairing with the 2022 Sundance premiere “We Met in Virtual Reality,” “Ibelin” is a poignant counterexample to the technodoomerism that often accompanies relationships formed in virtual spaces.
It can be hard to track down some documentaries after their festival runs, since they rarely get the marketing dollars and push that their fiction cousins do. Luckily, Netflix bought “Ibelin.” Which means you’ll be able to connect with Steen’s story, too — through the ubiquitous technology of your very own screen.