You can always count on the Sundance Film Festival to share outstanding independent films — and luckily for us, the festival screened quite a few travel-related flicks this year. Whether those films shined a spotlight on life in other countries, introduced heroes fighting for environmental initiatives, or showed individuals struggling to connect with their cultural identity, each one had something to say about the power of exploration.

But beyond the obvious travel connections established by this year’s films, the 2019 festival also strengthened ties between art and travel by featuring work from a diverse group of filmmakers. The event showcased projects directed by women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community, and its slate included feature-length films representing 33 countries. The lineup gave a voice to a wide variety of perspectives, provided a platform to discuss problems that don’t usually enter the cultural conversation, and transported audiences to locations far from the snowy mountains of Park City, Utah.

Speaking at a press conference on the first day of the festival, Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam put it best: “The festival is about culture. It’s about community and how artists are going to lead us to places that we might not otherwise go.”

So, if you’re a movie buff looking for films that will fill you with wanderlust, teach you something surprising about distant corners of the world, or just tell a good story, this list is a great starting point.

A still from "Shooting the Mafia," one of the 2019 Sundance documentary films.
Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Documentaries

“Shooting the Mafia”

This film, directed by Kim Longinotto, tells the life story of Letizia Battaglia, an Italian photojournalist who’s spent several decades documenting her hometown of Palermo, Sicily. Although Battaglia’s photos occasionally capture everyday Sicilian life, most of her work highlights the murders and other crimes committed by the island’s infamous Mafia. In her earliest days working for the local paper, Battaglia would find bodies on the streets, and she didn’t hesitate to turn her camera toward the gruesome scenes. To this day, her images incriminate the Sicilian Mafia, commemorate its victims, and show the dark side of beautiful Palermo.

The documentary uses archival footage, in-person interviews, and Battaglia’s original work to stitch her story together. While the film’s primary focus remains her personal life and work, the third act showcases a major Mafia trial from the 1980s, which led to the judge’s assassination a few years later.

“Shooting the Mafia” establishes a strong sense of place and presents Battaglia as a force to be reckoned with. It’s worth 97 minutes of your time, especially if you’d like to learn more about Sicilian mobsters — and the individual daring to challenge them.

Tigers are the subject of one of Sundance's 2019 documentary films.
Photo by Sander Wehkamp

“Tigerland”

In this documentary, director Ross Kauffman introduces several people working to protect tiger populations in India and the Russian Far East. The Indian side of the drama tells the story of Kailash Sankhala, a wildlife advocate who passed away almost 25 years ago but whose descendants are continuing his work with tigers. In Russia, the filmmakers follow Pavel Fomenko, a WWF scientist and “tiger protector” who works in a lab but also spends time in the wilderness, tracking both the big cats and their poachers.

By intertwining the stories of Sankhala’s past efforts and Fomenko’s present ones, and by focusing on the tigers’ near-regal beauty, “Tigerland” presents a compelling case for conservation. The documentary even features a few action scenes, like when Fomenko and his Russian team set out on horseback, racing to find a fully grown tiger and her cubs.

“Tigerland” is an excellent documentary, virtually guaranteed to win-over “Planet Earth” fans, tiger lovers, and people who believe that the animal kingdom deserves greater attention — and greater protection — than humans are currently giving it.

The Sea of Cortez is the setting for one of Sundance's 2019 documentary films.
Photo by Gaston Bazzino Ferreri

“Sea of Shadows”

Like “Tigerland,” “Sea of Shadows” is all about wildlife conservation, but this documentary’s subject isn’t a fearsome cat; it’s the marine life in the Sea of Cortez. There, poachers set out from mainland Mexico to capture the totoaba (a critically endangered fish) and sell it to the Chinese Mafia, who consider the fish’s bladder a delicacy with manifold health benefits. Unfortunately, the poachers’ illegal nets are also turning up plenty of bycatch and endangering several additional species, including a near-extinct porpoise called the vaquita.

The film doesn’t just show what’s happening as a result of the search for the lucrative totoaba; it also highlights the good guys’ efforts to stop the poachers. Director Richard Ladkani follows several investigators, journalists, and conservationists trying to protect the vaquita, even while asking if it’s too late to actually save the species.

“Sea of Shadows” is equal parts saddening, horrifying, and thrilling. It’s not a great choice for a feel-good, Friday-night flick, but it opens a necessary window into the underworld of marine poaching and species extinction. If you’re a hobby (or real) marine biologist, this film is for you.

A still from "Gaza," one of the documentary films that premiered at Sundance in 2019.
Photo by Andrew McConnell

“Gaza”

In this documentary, Irish filmmakers Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell turn the spotlight away from the political controversy that most people associate with the Gaza Strip. Instead, their film provides a rare glimpse of what it’s like inside this 141-square-mile enclave, where nearly two million people are going about their lives, business as usual. Keane and McConnell begin by introducing ordinary individuals (fishermen, teachers, taxi drivers, teenage girls, etc.) before slowly shifting the focus to the way that the conflict is affecting their everyday lives.

Unfortunately, “Gaza” attracted most of its media attention because one of the documentary’s subjects couldn’t attend the film festival. Because the Egypt–Gaza border closed in the weeks leading up to the premiere, Ali Abu Yaseen (a playwright, actor, and teacher shown in the film) was unable to visit the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and obtain the visa he needed to travel to Park City. It was a disappointing conclusion to his involvement with “Gaza,” but it definitely illustrated the frustrations and problems that Keane and McConnell explored in the film.

High-rise buildings in China, the setting for "The Farewell," one of this year's Sundance films.
Photo by Zhang Kaiyv

Feature Films

“The Farewell”

In this movie, Billi, a Chinese–American writer living in New York City, discovers that her beloved grandmother is dying of lung cancer. Along with the rest of her family, she heads back to China to say her goodbyes. The catch? No one has told Grandma about her diagnosis, and they’ve staged a fake wedding to explain their sudden return to the country.

Awkwafina fills the starring role in this new project from director Lulu Wang. The film is both funny and touching, and the audience feels just as trapped between Eastern and Western culture as Billi does. It’s a case study in cultural heritage, but somehow, it’s both less and more than that: it’s a story about a relatable family of loveable individuals. If you can’t quite afford a trip to China, put on “The Farewell” — it’s the next best thing.

A still from one of the Sundance feature films for 2019.
Photo by Peter Prato / A24

“The Last Black Man in San Francisco”

This film tells the semi-biographical story of San Francisco native Jimmie Falls, whose daydreams revolve around moving back into his childhood home. The house is a Victorian-style structure that his grandfather built in the 1940s, and its current residents — an older white couple — don’t maintain it the way that Jimmie believes they should. He often sneaks into the house to touch up the paint or take care of the garden, and partway through the film, he leaps at the chance to move in and reclaim what once belonged to his family.

Throughout the movie, director Joe Talbot addresses heavy subjects like gentrification, class, and race, but he cushions them with his fantastical style and his main characters’ strong friendship. The result is a moving story — and a surprisingly hopeful approach to the challenges that many modern cities and their residents are struggling with.

Interested in learning about other film festivals and their impact? Discover six of the world’s top festivals here!

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Whitney Brown
Whitney Brown is a recent journalism graduate and travel writer based in Utah. She has lived in France and Ireland, and she's always planning her next big adventure. In addition to her passion for travel, Whitney loves archaeology, photography and floral design.