Youngest documentary film festival celebrates exploration and pushes film boundaries with special themes, featuring a wide selection and notable events.

Best Documentary Film Festivals

The youngest fest on this list, Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival embraces the nature and history of documentary films. It also honors new explorations, pushing boundaries with regard to film techniques and addressing special themes.

This spring event boasts a huge selection and is known for its Doc Shop and pitching forum. Stay in the downtown core at Hotel Base.

1. Sundance

Sundance is the most established independent film festival with a long history of celebrating documentary. The event features both US and international films, and has a range of competitive sections, along with out-of-competition showcases.

The 2022 lineup has some docs that will spark discussion. For example, a new film from directors Coodie and Chike follows Kanye West’s career. Then there are a couple of films that address pressing news issues. One, Jihad Rehab, examines an underground abortion network while another, Deep Rising, zeroes in on innovations being made to plunder materials from the world’s oceans.

There are also a few titles that explore cultural issues, such as KOKOMO CITY, the directorial debut from music producer D. Smith that follows the lives of Black trans women.

2. Hot Docs

As North America’s largest documentary festival, conference and market (with 70 world premieres in 2023), Hot Docs knows how to fill a theatre. This year it’s screening 214 films across the city from April 27 – May 7, including in Bloor Street’s historic Hot Docs Cinema and UofT’s Isabel Bader Theatre, plus on digital platforms.

The opening night film is Into the Weeds from Canadian veteran Jennifer Baichwal, who returns to her favourite themes of exploitation and environmental harm. This time she follows Bay Area groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson and his fight against a toxic weed killer.

Also at the top of this list is Twice Colonized, which features Angry Inuk star Aaju Peters. While the film is darker and more heartbreaking than her first, the story of her unwavering fight for Inuit, Inuktitut and First Nations autonomy remains uplifting.

3. IDFA

The IDFA Documentary Film Festival is an annual international meeting place for audiences and professionals. The programme showcases a mix of creative and accessible films with urgent social themes.

This year’s edition opened with Niki Padidar’s All You See, a tender portrait of the feelings of otherness that accompany displaced people throughout their lives. The Masters section also features Frederick Wiseman’s slow-cinema odyssey of top restaurants and Maciek Hamela’s riveting documentary in which he follows Ukrainian refugees on the perilous journey to Poland.

Other highlights include Pegah Ahangarani’s intimate family history of the Iranian revolution and Nastia Korkia’s found-footage assemblage that traverses Russia’s fears and hopes. The Best of Fest section showcases the most promising films from the year’s festivals – including Cannes, Berlin, Sundance, and CPH:DOX.

4. LAFF

It’s been a year since LAFF’s new director took the reins, and this year, it seems that she’s starting to make some changes. For one, it’s no longer all world premieres.

Also, for the first time in its history, the festival is launching FACTORY a project to develop long documentary films by young female directors from Africa and Middle East. The festival will provide a stipend for the selected filmmakers to help them finalize their long documentaries.

One notable doc in this category is UK director Lucy Walker’s The Crash Reel, which follows extreme snowboarder Kevin Pearce’s crash and recovery—and its all-too-human consequences. You can catch it on HBO on July 15. See the full lineup here.

5. CPH:DOX

Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival is Scandinavia’s largest documentary event. The festival fills Copenhagen cinemas with a wide selection of films and organises seminars, conferences and an international financing and co-production event.

Besides the seven international competition sections CPH:DOX also features guest curated programmes. In recent years The xx, Anohni, Harmony Korine and Animal Collective have all exhibited films that expand and question the viewer’s conception of the world.

The profile of the commissioning editors invited to the pitching forums also gives a clue about how the festival conforms to specific thematic and aesthetic trends. This year a change in the calendar moved industry events closer to the end of the main festival programme. This reflects the desire of both the festival and its industry delegates to make the most out of their time in Copenhagen.

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