How Sundance films are probing the mushy nature of truth and fiction in 2020

By Alissa Wilkinson

Drew Dixon in On the Record.
A still from On the Record by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Martyna Starosta/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

It’s 2020, and many things that once seemed solid and certain now seem up for grabs. The line between truth and fiction, reality and hyperreality, what’s real and what the powerful want you to believe is real, has never felt more smudged.

And that appears, in a way, to be the unofficial theme of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Some of the films classified as “documentaries” use techniques more commonly associated with fiction; some of the fiction films have distinctly nonfiction qualities. Many explore the ways in which technology can create a “reality” that obscures what’s actually real — or what we lie about to ourselves and to others.

Here are 12 documentaries, fiction films, and documentary series from Sundance that unpack, explore, and sometimes use the blurry nature of truth and reality to their advantage — and ours.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets

A man sits at a bar, bathed in low light.
A scene from Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

In the extraordinary Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, documentarians and brothers Bill and Turner Ross chronicle the last night of service for a Las Vegas dive bar called Roaring ’20s, as regulars come and go, fight and kiss, and try to face the fact that the place that felt most like it was theirs will no longer exist. For them, it’s the end of the world.

But there’s a catch: The Ross brothers used a bar in New Orleans as a set and asked people to play characters much like themselves. Is the movie fiction? Yes, technically. Is it nonfiction? Not exactly. Is it “real”? Absolutely.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets reminds us that we’re constantly reinventing and performing ourselves, even in our most comfortable, cherished settings — and cinema does it, too.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is currently awaiting distribution.

Collective

Journalists face a man.
A still from Collective by Alexander Nanau, an official selection of the Spotlight program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

In 2015, a fire in a Bucharest nightclub killed 27 people — and 37 more in the weeks that followed, due to shockingly inadequate hospital conditions that led to infections in the survivors. Collective — named in part for the nightclub, Colectiv, and in part for the film’s theme of systemic failure — is an observational documentary that traces the conditions and exposes huge deficiencies in the Romanian health care system as a whole.

Documentarian Alexander Nanau captures the lies told by government officials during the fallout from the fire; eventually, their actions led to the government’s (short-lived) downfall. Collective plays out like a chilling, slow-moving train wreck, a study in how a government gaslights its citizens into accepting conditions that would be avoidable but for greed and corruption.

Collective will be distributed by Magnolia Pictures and Participant Media in May 2020.

The Dissident

A still from The Dissident by Bryan Fogel, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Jamal Khashoggi/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Oscar-winning documentarian Bryan Fogel (Icarus) returns with The Dissident, a searing, slickly filmed deep-dive into the murder of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi, ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (a.k.a. MBS) in 2018.

Leaning on extensive interviews as well as news reports and audio of the assassination, which took place inside Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Istanbul, The Dissident is a damning journalistic case. It takes on a regime that presents itself as progressive while actively working to control narratives about itself, sometimes via massive armies of Twitter trolls. (One expert in the documentary estimates that 80 percent of the Saudi Arabian population is on Twitter, compared with 20 percent in the US.)

The Dissident also makes clear the complicity of Donald Trump, who refused to outright condemn Khashoggi’s murder, and sounds an alarm bell for what Khashoggi’s death means for journalists around the world. At times the film presents so much information that it can be hard to follow, but its urgency is unmistakable.

The Dissident is awaiting distribution.

Dick Johnson Is Dead

Dick Johnson appears in Dick Johnson is Dead by Kirsten Johnson, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
John Wakayama Carey/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

In Dick Johnson Is Dead, documentarian Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson) zooms in on her aging father and her relationship with him as they both begin to come to terms with his inevitable eventual passing. The result is as playful as it is painful; in some sequences, Johnson stages her father’s arrival in heaven. In others, we’re not sure if we’re looking at something that really happened or something that’s imagined. Some scenes are shot in cinéma vérité style, as Dick plays with his grandchildren, packs up his office after retiring, and talks about his late wife, Kirsten’s mother, who had Alzheimer’s and died several years ago. It’s an exercise in imagination and an inquiry into whether imagining the death of a loved one and their hopes for the hereafter might magnify or blunt the blow of death when it finally comes.

Dick Johnson Is Dead will premiere on Netflix later this year.

Love Fraud

A still from Love Fraud by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, an official selection of the Special Events program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Alex Takats/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Love Fraud is absolutely unbelievable, except that it’s true. Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp, One of Us) explore the stories of a shockingly high number of women who were all aggressively courted — and in many cases, married — by a con man with multiple aliases whom, over the course of the four-part documentary series, they start to track down. Love Fraud is like The Jinx but better; it dives deeply into the ways we are blinded to the truth, even about ourselves — and its finale is truly, chillingly unforgettable.

Love Fraud premieres on May 8 on Showtime.

The Mole Agent

A still from The Mole Agent by Maite Alberdi, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Alvaro Reyes/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

You could call The Mole Agent a spy movie, but it’s an unusual one — and unusually poignant, too. Documentarian Maite Alberdi lets us in on a bit of subterfuge as Sergio, an elderly Chilean man, is “cast” as a new nursing home resident by Detective Romulo, who’s been hired to investigate the facility. Sergio’s job is to infiltrate the home on behalf of Romulo’s client and look into whether the client’s mother is being abused; meanwhile, the documentarians both follow Sergio and observe the home’s residents, who don’t know the whole truth about why Sergio is there. What Sergio discovers is much bigger than one patient’s story and more insightful about love, loneliness, and growing old.

The Mole Agent is currently awaiting distribution.

The Nowhere Inn

Annie Clark and Carrie Brownstein in The Nowhere Inn.
Minka Farthing Kohl/ Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The Nowhere Inn is a semi-fictionalized story about the hazards and constantly see-sawing power balance inherent in making a documentary. And it’s a ton of mind-bending fun. Carrie Brownstein (of Sleater-Kinney and Portlandia) and Annie Clark (a.k.a. St. Vincent) wrote the screenplay; each woman plays a version of herself — and, in Clark’s case, several versions.

In the film (as, presumably, in real life), Clark’s stage alter ego is a sharp-edged, take-no-prisoners performance artist, while off-stage she’s mild-mannered and pretty boring. She asks Brownstein to make a documentary about her, and for a while, Brownstein coaxes Clark to be “more” St. Vincent to make the movie more interesting. But when St. Vincent finally takes over Clark, things start to go haywire. In The Nowhere Inn, it’s impossible to tell where reality ends and performance begins — or if all of life, in the end, really is performance.

The Nowhere Inn is currently awaiting distribution.

On the Record

Drew Dixon in On the Record by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Omar Mullick/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

On the Record has been through a strange and somewhat baffling last few weeks. Not long before its Sundance debut, Oprah rescinded her support for the film (on which she was serving as executive producer) while reiterating her support for the women who appear in it and allege that “godfather of hip hop” and Def Jam founder Russell Simmons sexually assaulted or raped them.

Many of the allegations previously appeared in a 2017 New York Times article, and the reasons for Oprah’s withdrawal are still a little confusing. But On the Record is absolutely damning nonetheless, and is at its best when exploring the reasons that women, and particularly black women in America, often hesitate to accuse a powerful black man of a crime like sexual assault.

On the Record is currently awaiting distribution.

The Painter and the Thief

A still from The Painter and the Thief by Benjamin Ree, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Barbora Kysilkova/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

A stunner of a film, The Painter and the Thief is about a young Czech painter, Barbora Kysilkova, and Karl-Bertil Nordland, the thief who stole two of her paintings from an Oslo gallery. He was so high that he can’t remember why he did it — or what he did with the paintings. Barbora’s less interested in the thief than in where the paintings went, but eventually she meets him and decides to paint his portrait, after which they form a friendship and creative partnership of sorts.

The Painter and the Thief actively challenges what we think we understand about its characters based on their appearance, class markers, or behavior. It highlights the way artists of all kinds, from painters to filmmakers, turn reality into something that’s at least a little fictionalized in order to make their work — and how everyone conceals the truth a little.

The Painter and the Thief is currently awaiting distribution.

Time

A still from Time by Ursula Garrett Bradley, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Heartbreaking and passionate, Time is the chronicle of a love deferred and the life that hope can provide. Garrett Bradley’s documentary follows Fox Rich, who has spent 21 years doggedly petitioning for the release of her husband Rob, from prison, where he’s been sentenced to spend 60 years following a youthful crime in which they were both involved.

Meanwhile, she’s been raising their six children and becoming a powerful advocate for change in her community. And all along, Fox has made videos at home, which feel like a diary of her pain and endurance. Time details her struggle, demonstrating how mass incarceration persistently separates black families in America, as well as how bureaucracy and centuries of narratives conceal the truth and pain of those separations.

Time is currently awaiting distribution.

Welcome to Chechnya

A still from Welcome to Chechnya by David France, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

People who identify as LGBTQ experience opposition and difficulty all over the world. But in the Russian republic of Chechnya — the Putin-backed regime led by strongman Ramzan Kadyrov — the state is abducting and killing them with impunity. Welcome to Chechnya carefully follows a number of Chechens fleeing for their lives and others who try to shelter them and provide passage to countries where they might be safe.

Directed by investigative journalist and award-winning documentarian David France, the film digitally obscures the faces of people who are on the run for their lives — a technique to obscure the “truth” that becomes all the more powerful when it suddenly becomes part of the story.

Welcome to Chechnya will be released by HBO in June.

Zola

Riley Keough and Taylour Paige appear in Zola by Janicza Bravo, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Anna Kooris/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

I am reasonably confident that Zola is the first movie based on a Twitter thread to premiere at Sundance (or possibly ever), and it is a humdinger. In 2015, stripper A’ziah King — who goes by Zola — told the story, in about 144 tweets, of a strange-but-true trip to Florida with a girl named Stefani; the trip went madly, madly wrong when King discovered Stefani’s “roommate” was actually her pimp.

King later admitted some parts of her account were exaggerated, but Zola, directed by Janicza Bravo, is less interested in facts and more in storytelling, and how our perceptions of the characters are affected by who’s telling the story. It’s wild, raunchy, and very funny, with a cast that includes Riley Keough, Colman Domingo, Nicholas Braun (a.k.a. Succession’s Cousin Greg), and a marvelous Taylour Paige, plus a screenplay by Bravo and Slave Play writer Jeremy O. Harris.

Zola will be released later this year by A24.