The 10 world's best documentary film festivals

July 15, 2021

Documentary cinema has been increasingly influential in the supply of audiovisual content that we consume every day. If we look closely, we love to watch real footage. And it is everywhere! Whether in our social media, in places like Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO Max, or in streaming platforms and apps specialized in the documentary genre such as Guidedoc.

For those who are passionate about the genre, film festivals are those places where the best documentary films are premiered worldwide. Located mostly in Europe, there is a select and privileged group of exclusive documentary film festivals that are massively frequented by moviegoers and filmmakers alike.

What are the top 10 documentary-only film festivals?

Guidedoc has selected for you the most important venues of world documentary cinema so that you can start designing your calendar for the upcoming new festival season.

  • Doclisboa

  • Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival

  • Documenta Madrid


  • Sheffield DocFest

  • Cinema Du Réel

  • CPH: DOX

  • Hot Docs Canadian Documentary Film Festival

  • Visions Du Reel

  • IDFA: International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam

10 - Doclisboa (Lisboa, Portugal)


Filmmaker present their documentaries at Doclisboa in Portugal


Doclisboa is a unique event within the film festival circuit. It can be said that it is a showcase where aesthetic risk, independent production, and new voices in the world on cinema are among the curatorial predilections.

The festival, located in the Portuguese capital, conceives its official selection each year as a set of films that "question the presence of cinema", so that, in one day of screenings, we can see films by new voices such as "Ahore" by Leonor Teles, or "What Remains" by Jola Wieczorek, but also capital works in documentary cinema such as "Don't Look Back" by D. A Pennebaker or the most recent film by Werner Herzog.

9 - Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival (Jihlava, Czech Republic)


A panel discussion at the Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival

This is one of the festivals that is having more boom in the circuit for its constancy and resonance of the films in its program

It is held at the end of October in the city of Jihlava, in the center of the Czech Republic, and already has 25 years of experience.

Its most important section, "Opus Bonum", each year selects documentary works from all over the world in Czech, European or world premiere.

With the premise of highlighting the creative documentary, the festival usually awards several prizes, including categories such as best sound, editing, film essay and cinematography.

8 - Documenta Madrid (Madrid, Spain)


A cinema theatre full of people at a screening at Documenta Madrid


With less than twenty years of existence, this festival is the most important in Spain in the documentary category, but it is rapidly growing in influence in Europe.

It is also worth mentioning the importance it generates in the Ibero-American area. So, every year, there is an important presence of the best documentary cinema from Latin America, Spain and Portugal.

However, the scope of Documenta Madrid expands with each edition. One example is the award given in 2021 to the American film "All Light, Everywhere" by Theo Anthony, which premiered at Sundance, and awarded the festival's grand prize.

7 - DOC NYC (New York, U.S.A)


A panel discussion as part of the activities of DOC NY

New York City could not be left out of a listing like this. DOC NYC is the most important film festival dedicated exclusively to documentary film in the city, and is gaining more and more presence despite being in the shadow of festivals such as Tribeca or Sundance, which annually pay tribute to several Oscar nominees in the category.

The organization is honored to be the "largest documentary event in the United States" and in each edition has invited stars such as Martin Scorsese, Jim Carrey, Win Wenders or Angelica Huston.

6 - Sheffield DocFest (Sheffield, England)


Participants hear a panel discussion at the Sheffield DocFest


The Sheddielf DocFest is the festival where new and experienced filmmakers would love to premiere their new documentary film

Having the mythical English documentary school as its legacy, this English festival has great prestige in the specialized industry, so not only its official selection but also its market of documentary projects and finished documentaries is a strategic point at the European and world level.

The event has a marked interest in films that reflect the vibrant and complicated social realities of the planet but also appreciates experimental works that stand out for their narrative audacity and the use of cinematographic language.

5 - Cinema Du Réel (Paris, France)


Filmmakers present their film at the Cinema Du Reel Film Festival


Organized by the Public Information Library of Paris, the Cinema Du Reel has the endorsement of having been founded by the legendary filmmakers Jean Rouch and Jean-Michel Arnold in 1978, which gives it an artistic profile within this list.

Around 17,000 spectators per year attend the screenings of the 200 films that are shown mainly in the Pompidou Center and other theaters around the city.

The festival takes place every March and organizes a series of workshops, seminars and special presentations whose sole purpose is to honor the nature, new explorations and history of documentary filmmaking.


4 - CPH: DOX (Copenhagen, Denmark)


A packed cinema theatre at the CPH:DOX Film Festival


Being the youngest of the list, having been born in 2003, the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival appears as a fresh and innovative event, values that have quickly given it a privileged position in the arena of global documentary industry.

Focused on independent works of new talents, risk and artistic experimentation are perhaps the main characteristics of its selection. The inclusions of hybrid pieces in its catalog works that flirt with traditional fiction, have even generated some controversy, like when Harmony Korine's "Trash Humpers" obtained the CPH: DOX Award in 2009.

In addition to its innovative permanent programs, one of its new highlights is the program exclusively designed by guest filmmakers, such as Ben Rivers, Animal Collective, Nan Goldin and Harmony Korine himself.


3 - Hot Docs Canadian Documentary Film Festival (Toronto, Canada)


the cinema marquee of the Hot Docs Theater Ted Rogers


Considered the largest documentary film event in the Americas, HotDocs has a record of attracting around 215,000 people during its 2017 edition.

In addition to presenting more than 200 films from around the world each year, the festival pays particular attention to its Doc Shop, a large documentary market that has positioned itself as an essential stop in the documentary industry with the more than 2,000 delegates attending the event on an annual basis.

An important property of the festival is the famous Hot Docs Theater Ted Rogers, one of the few documentary-only theaters in the world.


2 - Visions Du Reel (Nyon, Suitzerland)


The venue of the Visions Du Reel film festival in Nyon


The history of Visions Du Reel goes back to the year 1969, when it was created with the name of Nyon International Documentary Film Festival and whose purpose was to make accessible films that were difficult to watch at the time, especially those originated from the other side of the Soviet "Iron Curtain".

The political motivation that catapulted it as the most important festival of documentary art has evolved to this day, when it remains as a vital meeting place of world documentary cinema.

During its beginnings, the festival collaborated closely with great figures of world cinematography such as Joris Ivens, Roman Karmen and Georges Rouquier. Its founder, Moritz De Halden, has later been director of the renowned Locarno International Film Festival, the Berlinale and the Venice International Film Festival.


1 – IDFA: International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (Amsterdam, Netherlands)


A panel discussion at a cinema theatre at IDFA


The mecca of documentary filmmaking is in Amsterdam.

The renowned IDFA has celebrated more than 30 years of history with good health, being today the event where all documentary filmmakers would love to release their film.

With 200 documentaries screened annually to some 120,000 people, the festival seeks to disseminate creative and high-quality films that represent the most vibrant social and political realities worldwide.

Attending every November this massive festival would allows us to live a unique experience by being surrounded by documentary film lovers who come from all over the world to interact directly with the directors of all the films that make up its rich program of shorts, mid length and feature documentary films organized in its various sections.


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