Eight Excellent Documentaries to Watch This Year

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XY Chelsea - Still 1
XY Chelsea, 2019 (Film still)Courtesy of Sheffield Doc/Fest

From Chelsea Manning’s life and career to Harvey Weinstein’s rise and fall and one trans man’s pregnancy, Thomas Adam Curry selects eight of this year’s most gripping documentaries – all screening at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2019

One of the largest and most significant celebrations of non-fiction filmmaking in Europe, the 26th edition of acclaimed documentary film festival Sheffield Doc/Fest returns to South Yorkshire from June 6 to 11 this year. Featuring a powerful, thought-provoking and eclectic mix of features, shorts, discussions, talks, workshops and live performances, this year’s festival explores ‘ways of seeing’, providing a platform for emerging filmmakers to share new perspectives on themes as varied as politics, power, climate change, gender and sexuality.

With 50 per cent of films made by women, this year’s festival also includes live music events showcasing artists including Kate Nash, Summer Camp and Bo Ningen, as well as an unrivalled line-up of guest speakers including Ai Weiwei, Werner Herzog, Waad Al-Kateab, Jeanie Finlay and Asif Kapadia, among others. We’ve shortlisted a selection of favourite screenings you really won’t want to miss.

XY Chelsea

After instigating the largest leak of state secrets in American history, Chelsea Manning was supposed to spend a lifetime behind bars in an all-male military prison. Then, on January 17, 2017, President Obama commuted her sentence, in an unprecedented and controversial move that divided the United States and the world. As much a testament to Chelsea’s resilience as it is a record of her activism, XY Chelsea offers an intimate portrait of a woman struggling to survive under the weight of unparalleled public scrutiny.


Director Ursula Macfarlane couldn’t have picked a better title for her insightful and gripping feature about the rise and fall of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Once a man who had power, wealth and critical acclaim, unaccountable for his crimes, he’s now become a pariah, toxic, as the most recognisable face of the #MeToo movement. Placing Weinstein’s victims at its centre, Untouchable provides a much needed space for the abused to reclaim their story and speak truth to power. It’s a galvanising and necessary watch that reminds us that the fight for justice is still far from over.

For Sama

A love letter from mother Waad al-Kateab to her daughter, For Sama captures the Syrian people’s struggle for survival in the face of unprecedented catastrophe and conflict. Much like Talal Derki’s remarkable Of Fathers And Sons, For Sama frames scenes of domestic intimacy side-by-side with harrowing shots of death and destruction to spotlight the human cost of war. It’s an intimate and visceral story that presents a rarely seen female perspective on the conflict. Al-Kateab wrestles with an impossible choice – should she flee the city to protect her daughter’s life, when leaving means abandoning the struggle for which she’s already sacrificed so much?

A Dog Called Money

Combining music documentary, war-zone travelogue and multimedia art project, Irish photojournalist-turned-director Seamus Murphy captures the unorthodox creation of PJ Harvey’s 2016 opus The Hope Six Demolition Project from start to finish. While tracing the sources of her songs and detailing the journey of their birth, Murphy brings to life the people and places at their very heart.

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch

Humans are making such profound changes to our planet that scientists argue we are in a new epoch: the Anthropocene. More than four years in the making, shot by renowned landscape photographer Edward Burtynsky, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch documents the devastating environmental impact of our cities, industry and agriculture with footage that’s as alarming as it is visually arresting. With epic landscapes, and a sprawling, global focus Anthropocene catalogues a wealth of man-made horrors – from the vast harnessing of ivory to lithium extraction in Chile and the coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef.


Made with unprecedented access and a uniquely collaborative sensibility, Seahorse is an audacious story about what it is that makes us who we are. When Freddy, aged 30, decides to conceive, carry and deliver his own child as a transgender gay man, he crashes head-to-head with a society that seems intent on defining ‘family’ through a cis-gender, heterosexual lens. What feels pragmatic to him, feels confronting to others. With nuance and care, Seahorse reframes the narrative to suggest that just because something is uncommon, doesn’t mean it ought to be considered abnormal.

The Rest

Following his remarkably ambitious Human Flow, The Rest is the second film from renowned artist and enfant terrible Ai Weiwei about the migrant crisis – only this time, the filmmaker eschews epic panorama in favour of much more focused, emotionally intimate individual portraits. A cross-continent odyssey, The Rest holds a mirror up to pan-European values of liberalism and democracy, reflecting a system that has largely failed to protect those most in need of help.

Nomad: In The Footsteps Of Bruce Chatwin

When British writer and adventurer Bruce Chatwin was dying of AIDS, he gave his friend Werner Herzog the rucksack that he carried on all of his adventures around the world. Now, three decades later, Herzog sets out on his own journey inspired by Chatwin’s passion for the nomadic life. It’s a contemplative and non-linear adventure that reminds us of the value of maintaining a curious wonder about the world we live in.

Sheffield Doc/Fest runs from June 6 – 11, 2019.