Documentaries are reflections of unique corners of the world. And like the world itself, the documentary film scene is constantly changing.

If your dream is to become the next Barbara Kopple, staying up on the scene through film festivals is a must. Not only should you keep tabs on who’s who and who’s buying what, but you should also get a sense of what’s about to pop off. Staying competitive in a crowded market is key, so if you want to seriously get in the ring, here are the most important documentary film festivals to keep on your radar.


Durban International Film Festival (South Africa)

July 16-26, 2020

The largest film festival on the continent of Africa, DIFF presents over 180 films from around the world, and has a strong focus on African cinema. In 2018, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Scientists officially recognized DIFF as an Oscar-qualifying festival. The festival also promotes the accessibility of cinema in areas where cinemas are nonexistent. With its shout-out from the Academy and its community-building focus, DIFF has proven that it belongs in the same ranks as other prestigious festivals around the world.

*Free The Bid festival alumni*
Anbessa by Mo Scarpelli (Italy | United States) 2019
The Sound of Masks by Sara CF de Gouveia (South Africa | Portugal) 2018


Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival (Japan)

October 10-17, 2019

Founded in 1989, YIDFF was Asia’s first ever international documentary film festival. Its New Asian Currents competition program focuses on uplifting young filmmakers throughout Asia and the Asian diaspora. Because of its international focus and encouraging resources for young filmmakers, it has been described as a “magnet” for indie filmmakers.

Hong Kong International Film Festival (China)

March 24-April 6, 2020

One of the oldest film festivals in Asia, the festival prides itself on its strong support of Asian storytellers and bringing Hong Kong cinema to the world at large. There is also a Summer International Film Festival (SummerIFF) held every August, so you have even more chances to share your work of art with a global audience.

*Free The Bid festival alumni*
One Child Nation by Nanfu Wang


Doc Edge (New Zealand)

May 28-June 7, 2020

This Oscar-qualifying international doc fest was the first festival dedicated to documentary in New Zealand. It is held every year in Auckland and Wellington and seeks to celebrate the best docs from New Zealand and countries across the globe. Film and TV professionals also attend the festival for the pitch competition, so pull up here if you’re trying to put yourself out there.

*Free The Bid festival alumni*
Honeyland by Tamara Kotevska

Melbourne Documentary Film Festival (Australia)

July 15-29, 2020

One of the newest film festivals on the circuit, MDFF has already climbed the ranks to feature both A-list documentaries and docs from newcomers to watch. The festival is vocal about its support for women documentarians and documentaries about the Asian, LGBTQIA, and Aboriginal/Indigenous communities. Even if your entry isn’t accepted, you’ll still receive feedback (upon request), a complimentary pass to select documentary screenings, and a possible chance at having submission fees waived for future festivals. Here, you win even if you don’t.



Cinéma Du Réel (France)

March 13-22, 2020

Founded in 1978, Cinema Du Reel is an international documentary film festival organized by the BPI-Bibliothèque Publique d'information in Paris. The festival presents about 200 films per year on top of workshops, seminars, and a program that highlights the best of documentary cinema history. Expand your horizons, your mind, and your taste here.

Sunny Side of the Doc (France)

June 22-25, 2020

This isn’t necessarily a film festival, but it can be the perfect place to finally land your big break–if you’ve got the stamina. Sunny Side of the Doc is a four-day conference where over 2,000 professionals from over 70 countries flock for high-level networking events, pitching sessions, and panels.The event boasts that in the most recent festival, over 600 executive meetings were arranged to discuss all the best projects.

CPH: DOX (Denmark)

March 18-29, 2020

Get entertained and educated at one of the most prestigious documentary film festivals in the world. To put things in perspective, CPH: DOX, founded in 2003, garnered 110,500 submissions in 2018. The festival aims to facilitate social change by not just showcasing documentaries, but also curating debates, artists talks, and masterclasses. The festival is certainly more than a film festival, and features a VR screening room, an international financing and co-production event (CPH:FORUM), and a film production program (CPH:LAB).

*Free The Bid festival alumni*
Jawline by Liza Mandelup (USA)
Run like a Girl by Katrine W. Kjær (Denmark)
Cassandro the Exotico by Marie Losier
Hail Satan by Penny Lane
Lucky One by Mia Engberg (Sweden)

DOK Leipzig (Germany)

October 28-November 3, 2019

Founded in 1955, DOX Leipzig is one of the oldest documentary film programs on the planet and is celebrated as being one of the first festivals to showcase both documentary and animated films. It’s truly an international and inclusive festival, with last year’s selections coming from 50 countries (and 60% of those films were made by women filmmakers)! Impressed and intrigued? We feel that, too.

IDFA: International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (Netherlands)

November 20-December 1, 2020

Now here’s a festival that empowers and uplifts. Founded in 1988, this is the largest documentary film festival in the world, showcasing over 300 films with around 3,000 patrons each year. Aside from the festival, IDFA features several programs and resources like the IDFA Forum, which allows filmmakers to pitch their plans to financiers, the IDFA Bertha Fund, which supports documentarians in developing countries.

Sheffield Doc/Fest (England)

June 4-9, 2020

This festival truly focuses on inclusion, as evidenced by how 54% of the selected films of 2018 were directed or co-directed by women. All Doc/Fest pass holders also receive access to the Doc/Player for six weeks after the festival’s completion. The Doc/Player is one of the best platforms in the world and is used to promote documentaries seeking sales, distribution, and screening opportunities.

*Free The Bid festival alumni*
Black to Techno by Jenn Nkiru
Calling Home by Jade Jackman

Visions Du Réel Nyon (Switzerland)

April 24-May 2, 2020

This fest does not play around. Created in 1969 as a way of bringing films from the Eastern Bloc across the Iron Curtain, the festival is now the largest Swiss film festival dedicated strictly to documentaries. It is also a part of the Doc Alliance, which is a creative partnership for distribution between seven other key European documentary film festivals. The Alliance members not included in this list are Doclisboa, Docs Against Gravity FF, Marseille Festival of Documentary Film, and the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival.


Hot Docs Canadian Documentary Film Festival (Canada)

April 30-May 10, 2020

If you want to immerse yourself in all-things doc, grab a pass to this now. As North America’s largest documentary film festival, conference, and market, Hot Docs showcases around 200 films to crowds as large as 200,000 people. The festival features a unique mix of public and professional events that make it the North American hotspot for the best docs in the world.

True/False Film Festival (USA)

March 5-8, 2020

ATTN: artists, outcasts, weirdos, romantics, and poets. Located in Columbia, Missouri, T/F has become one of the premiere documentary festivals in the world, even though it’s only four days long. The festival blends filmmaking, music, and art, allowing creatives to turn downtown Columbia into an artistic utopia. From parades to even a 5k run, this festival is sure to infuse your doc-filled days with non-stop fun.


November 6-15, 2019

Founded in 2010, DOC NYC showcases short, episodic, and feature-length documentaries. It has become America’s largest documentary film festival (and possibly one of the largest in the world). With a slew of A-list guests (from Martin Scorsese to Hillary Clinton), you know that you’ll make memories and connections that will last a lifetime. You’ll never have a better excuse to go to New York.

Traverse City Film Festival (USA)

July 28-August 2, 2020

If you want to rub elbows with name talent, here’s a spot for you. Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Michael Moore founded this festival in 2005, and it boasts impressive board of A-list Oscar, Emmy, and Grammy award-winning creatives and executives. In addition to free panel discussions, the festival also offers an affordable film school throughout the festival that hosts two classes every day.

*Free The Bid festival alumni*
Cooked: Survival by Zip Code by Judith Helfand
Untouchable by Ursula Macfarlane
Circus of Books by Rachel Mason



March 11-16, 2020

Founded in 1969, it is the oldest film festival in Latin America. CIFF seeks to bring high quality Latin American works to global audiences, with a special emphasis given to the development of Colombian cinema. CIFF also uses its Cinema in the Neighborhoods program to bring 70 short films from all over the world to neighboring municipalities that typically don’t have access to theaters and films.


And because we love you so much, here is a bonus list for you Virtual Reality Doc-Heads out there. Some of the festivals in this list feature their own free exhibitions so be on the lookout for those! The following exhibitions showcase VR, AR, XR, 360 films, and other types of digital art:

There’s countless VR-specific film festivals and documentary-focused festivals out there— this is just the tip of the iceberg. So take a deep breath, look into what’s available in your community, and charge into the sea of opportunities that await you. The world is your oyster, and the oyster needs you, documentarian, to make it a better place!


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