Documentaries - The Grierson Awards

The 49th annual British Documentary Awards crowned 17 winners in a star-studded ceremony earlier this week...

Press Release

Four broadcasters led the winners with the BBC taking 6 awards, Netflix with 5, Channel 4 taking 2 and Sky with 1. The Best Student Documentary award went to a the National Film and Television School post-graduate.

Keo Films’ BBC Two series, Once Upon A Time In Iraq took a double crown, Yinka Bokinni won Best Presenter for her heart-breaking Damilola: The Boy Next Door, and there were two special awards: Sundance Film Festival Director Tabitha Jackson was named BBC Grierson Trustees’ Award winner and production manager, Serena Kennedy took the inaugural The Talent Manager Grierson Hero of the Year Award. The 2021 Griersons were presented in conjunction with headline sponsors All3Media and digital broadcast partners, Little Dot Studios.

Lorraine Heggessey, Chair of The Grierson Trust said: “It’s been another extraordinary year in documentary film-making and our winners reflect the dynamic and sometimes tumultuous times we live in – whether wowing us with films reflecting the cutting edge of medical science, spotlighting repression and political corruption, or delving into the defining issues of our time. It is thrilling to see an industry that is thriving and continuing to make bold, powerful films told through dedication, compassion and expertise.”

With the ceremony hosted by Patrick Kielty, stars and personalities from across TV and public life took part including: wildlife filmmaker Dan O’Neill; psychotherapist Philippa Perry; presenters Alison Hammond, Yinka Bokinni, Trevor Phillips, Prue Leith, Alexander Armstrong, Ade Adepitan and Mobeen Azhar; journalist Ellie Flynn; art historian Katy Hessel; documentary maker Louis Theroux; Paralympian swimmer Ellie Robinson; gymnasts Lisa Mason and Catherine Lyons; and actor Filippo Scotti.

The ceremony also took time to recognise the work and achievements of the Grierson DocLab training schemes including two new specialist programmes that commenced in 2021 for editors and production managers. With an illustrious track record of enabling trainees to become ‘job ready’, the success of Grierson DocLab is embodied by four alumni working on nominated films featured during the evening, including Poppy Goodheart (2013 alumna) who produced the Best Science winner, Locked In: Breaking the Silence.

You can watch the ceremony in full [all three hours of it - Ed] or find the full list of winners below.

David Attenborough

Best Single Documentary - Domestic (sponsored by Envy)

David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet

Jonnie Hughes, Alastair Fothergill, Keith Scholey & Colin Butfield
Silverback Films & WWF Production — Netflix

This documentary tells the story of life on our planet by the man who has seen more of the natural world than most. In 90+ years, David Attenborough has visited every continent on the globe, exploring our planet and documenting the living world in all its variety and wonder.

The judges said: "Covering the most important story of our times, it weaves together many layers to give a powerful perspective that only Sir David could impart, after decades of standout filmmaking. This was visually arresting, attention-grabbing documentary filmmaking. It is a film that people need to watch." 

Two people sitting on steps outside a building

Best Single Documentary - International (sponsored by Molinare)

Collective: Unravelling a Scandal

Alexander Nanau, Bianca Oana, Bernard Michaux, Hanka Kastelicova & Antoaneta Opriș
Alexander Nanau Production – BBC Four

In 2015, a fire at Bucharest’s Colectiv club leaves 27 dead and 180 injured. Soon, more burn victims begin dying in hospitals from wounds that were not life-threatening. Then a doctor blows the whistle to a team of investigative journalists. One revelation leads to another as the journalists start to uncover vast health care fraud. When a new health minister is appointed, he offers unprecedented access to his efforts to reform the corrupt system but also to the obstacles he faces. Following journalists, whistle-blowers, burn victims, and government officials, Collective is an uncompromising look at the impact of investigative journalism at its best.

The judges said: "The judges were completely gripped by this extraordinary film about systematic corruption at the heart of the Romanian healthcare system and admired the way the filmmakers reveal the unfolding political scandal from the inside in a way that was understated but always intensely dramatic. This was observational documentary at its best."

looking down on 2 people sitting on a sofa

Best Current Affairs Documentary (sponsored by Televisual)

Welcome to Chechnya: The Gay Purge

David France, Alice Henty, Joy A. Tomchin, Askold Kurov, Tyler H. Walk & Igor Myakotin
Public Square Films – BBC Four

Welcome to Chechnya: The Gay Purge bears witness to the work of Russian activists rescuing victims of a governmental anti-LGBTQ purge, hiding them in safe houses, smuggling them into other countries and attempting to gain the assistance of foreign governments. This is not historical fiction, but a tragically contemporary account of an ongoing humanitarian crisis — a genocide in the making.

The judges said: "This documentary reminded the jury of the power of observational filmmaking. They described it as mind-blowing, with phenomenal access to brave central characters that made for deeply disturbing revelations and amazing insight into the court case at the heart of the narrative. The use of digital deepfake was innovative and exemplary; keeping the audience immersed in the story from start to finish."

Man in a suit
HIGHLY COMMENDED - Undercover in the Schools that Chain Boys

Fath Al-Rahman Al-Hamdani, Jessica Kelly, Mamdouh Akbiek, Bettina Waked, Simon Cox & Mustafa Khalili
BBC News Arabic Documentaries – BBC Arabic

A BBC News Arabic investigation has uncovered systemic child abuse inside Islamic schools in Sudan, with boys as young as five years old routinely chained, shackled and beaten by the ‘sheikhs’, or religious men in charge of the schools. The investigation found evidence of rape and sexual abuse. For 18 months, reporter Fateh Al-Rahman Al-Hamdani, filmed inside 23 schools across Sudan. The film follows the boys’ recoveries and their families’ fight for justice.

The judges said: "This extraordinary piece of revealing filmmaking truly shocked the judges. The investigation was expertly held together by the reporter, made even more poignant by the fact he had a personal stake in the film. A prime example of powerful undercover documentary making with great access and determination to hold those responsible to account."

Tattooed man wearing glasses

Best Arts Documentary (sponsored by Storm)

The Painter and the Thief

Benjamin Ree & Ingvil Giske
Medieoperatørene, VGTV, Tremolo Productions & Norwegian Film Institute
Sky Arts

Desperate for answers about the theft of her two paintings, a Czech artist seeks out and befriends the career criminal who stole them. After inviting her thief to sit for a portrait, the two form an improbable relationship and an inextricable bond that will forever link these lonely souls.

The judges said: "The judges described this as an impressive piece of work. They fell in love with the protagonists, becoming fully invested in their respective journeys. They loved the craft of the film and how it was artfully constructed. With amazing access, you got an inside track watching the characters grow and find themselves. An original and brilliant documentary."

Biggie looking into the camera

Best Music Documentary (sponsored by Sky Documentaries)

Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell

Production team
A Netflix Original Documentary — Netflix

Featuring rare footage and in-depth interviews, this documentary celebrates the life of The Notorious B.I.G. on his journey from hustler to rap king.

The judges said: "The sociological precision and crisp, articulate detail of the contributors made this documentary revelatory with regards to the motivations of a well-known subject. The film presented the inevitability of themes of drugs and violence as a Shakespearean tragedy, even without focusing on Biggie’s death, and used never-before seen archive and music to tell a well-rounded story.”

Gymnast jumping

Best Sports Documentary

Athlete A

Bonni Cohen, Jon Shenk, Serin Marshall, Jennifer Sey, Julie Parker Benello & Don Bernier
A Netflix Original Documentary in association with Impact Partners, Artemis Rising Foundation, Meadow Fund, Dobkin Family Foundation, Chicago Media Project, Grant Me the Wisdom Productions & An Actual Films Production – Netflix

This documentary focuses on the gymnasts who survived USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar’s abuse and the reporters who exposed USAG’s toxic culture.

The judges said: "This was a meticulous and devastating film exposing layer upon layer of cruelty and abuse. The bravery and self-possession of the women who were preyed upon was at times heart-breaking. This was a great piece of journalism that was never over-blown, detailing not just the behaviour of the sexual predator Dr Nassar, but also the system of cruelty imported from Romania and the willingness of USA Gymnastics to turn a blind eye in the service of power and money."

Person in a gas mask

Best History Documentary (sponsored by Channel 5)

Once Upon a Time in Iraq – Episode 2

James Bluemel, Jo Abel, Miriam Walsh, Will Grayburn, Will Anderson & Andrew Palmer
KEO Films – BBC Two

In this series, the story of the Iraq war is told by civilians, journalists, and soldiers – ordinary people from both sides of the conflict, who lived through the 17 years of chaos that followed. Told with hope, humanity and humour, and illustrated with extraordinary archive, it takes us closer to the realities of the invasion than ever before. Through their eyes we see how events in Iraq have changed the world forever.

The judges said: "This was a profound and powerful piece of work which impressed the judges with its focussed journalism and great editing. The filmmakers were praised for not going for the obvious choices in their contributors but presenting us with credible and conflicted characters. Genre-defining, totally gripping and the whole package."

Man lying in hospital with eyes shut

Best Science Documentary (sponsored by The Open University)

Locked In: Breaking the Silence

Xavier Alford, Colette Hodges, Sacha Mirzoeff, Poppy Goodheart, Iris Maor & Jane Zurakowski
Marble Films – BBC Four

Locked In: Breaking the Silence is an intimate, personal and surprisingly life-affirming story with a rare illness at its heart. Director Xavier Alford is finally confronting an illness he has been hiding from family, close friends and even himself. Locked In offers a fresh and unflinchingly honest perspective on the benefits of confronting the very things that scare us most, as Xavier finds that talking with fellow patients and his family makes them all stronger.

The judges said: "The marriage of poetry and science to create an exposing, challenging and brave film really moved the judges. A touch of innocence and tenderness was added through conversations with the filmmakers’ children, which explored the science behind his illness. The sound design and edit were also commended as incredibly powerful, making the film appear almost as an art installation at times, to truly elegant effect."

Surgeons performing an operation
HIGHLY COMMENDED - The Surgeon's Cut – Episode 1

Production team
BBC Studios — Netflix

They’re philosophers, storytellers and pioneers in their fields. Four surgeons reflect on their lives and professions in this inspiring docuseries. In episode one, an innovative, compassionate fetal medicine specialist, Dr. Kypros Nicolaides guides his patients through emotionally fraught pregnancy complications.

The judges said: "Jeopardy was present for all at the outset of watching this gripping documentary. The judges described the interviews set ups as gorgeous, use of archive extremely cool and access as impressive; with an engaging central character to keep the viewer invested throughout. The narrative humanised an otherwise clinical and removed process at the centre of the story, injecting it with a big hit of emotion."

Octopus holding on to diver

Best Natural History or Environmental Documentary (sponsored by Discovery)

My Octopus Teacher

Pippa Ehrlich, Ellen Windemuth, Swati Thiyagarajan, Craig Foster, James Reed & Sam Barton-Humphries
A Netflix Original Documentary in association with Off the Fence & The Sea Change Project – Netflix

A filmmaker forges an unusual friendship with an octopus living in a South African kelp forest, learning as the animal shares the mysteries of her world.

The judges said: "A moving and captivating narrative that the judges said captured incredible, not seen before natural history. Structurally impeccable, it was astonishing and beautiful filmmaking, which at its heart told a wonderful story that struck an emotional chord."

Two men shaking hands in an office

Best Entertaining Documentary (sponsored by YouTube Originals)

The Mole: Infiltrating North Korea

Mads Brügger, Bjarte Mørner Tveit & Peter Engel
Piraya Film I AS – BBC Four

A real-life undercover thriller about two ordinary men who embark on an outrageously dangerous ten-year mission to penetrate the world’s most secretive and brutal dictatorship: North Korea.

The judges said: "The judges were gripped by this fascinating story. They described it a breath-taking, jaw-dropping, surreal, crazy, fearless, bombastic, beautiful and honest."

Woman looking out of a window in a high rise block of flats

Best Documentary Series (sponsored by Netflix)

Once Upon a Time in Iraq

James Bluemel, Jo Abel, Miriam Walsh, Simon Sykes, Will Anderson & Andrew Palmer
KEO Films — BBC Two

In this series, the story of the Iraq war is told by civilians, journalists, and soldiers - ordinary people from both sides of the conflict, who lived through the 17 years of chaos that followed. Told with hope, humanity and humour, and illustrated with extraordinary archive, it takes us closer to the realities of the invasion than ever before. Through their eyes we see how events in Iraq have changed the world forever.

The judges said: "The judges were unanimous in choosing this devastatingly powerful series as the category winner. They praised it as a masterclass in casting with remarkable characters drawn from all sides of the conflict whose stories intersect in surprising and compelling ways. They described it as immersive with a great story arc to each episode which provided insights to both geo-political and deeply personal stories."

Two schoolboys, one black one with ginger hair, standing arm in arm in school

Best Constructed Documentary Series (sponsored by Channel 4)

The School That Tried to End Racism

Production team
Proper Content — Channel 4

A new series following a pioneering British school as it tries to help its students uncover and eradicate hidden racial biases.

The judges said: "This highly original documentary format felt fresh and raw to the jury. The film was high stakes and highly educative, taking the viewer on an unexpected journey along with the contributors. It never felt overly emotional but instead charted the difficulties faced by each of the school children in a measured way. Reflecting current societal issues of race and identity, but framing it within the context of a future generation, felt worthy and was poignant and thought-provoking. There was a Catherine wheel of impact as the ripple effect of the experiment spread beyond the children to their families and teachers and ultimately to viewers themselves."

Black and white school photo of a girl

Best Documentary Short (sponsored by The Rumi Foundation)

A Love Song for Latasha

Sophia Nahli Allison, Fam Udeorji & Janice Duncan
A Netflix Original Documentary – Netflix

The killing of Latasha Harlins became a flashpoint for the 1992 LA uprising. This documentary evocatively explores the 15-year-old’s life and dreams.

The judges said: "This documentary expertly combined animation, music, interviews, and a whole array of visual treats to document Latasha’s tragically short life and share her story, hopes and unrealised dreams, by the people who loved her the most. The change in documentary style and grade for the three narrative segments was charming and effective, adding style and layers to this touching eulogy of a film in a subtle and unexpected way"

Naked woman in a mask, anorak and work boots

Best Student Documentary (sponsored by All3Media)


Jessica Brady, Danielle Goff, Lesley Posso, Henry Sims, Alastair Mcnamara & Fabiana Tesauro
National Film and Television School

A filmmaker delves into the world of online sex workers by becoming one herself. Realising it's not as straightforward as she first thought, she begins to push her boundaries; but will it ever be enough?

The judges said: "Watching the director hurl herself into the world of online sex work made for a compelling story from the get-go. The judges were impressed by the bravery and vulnerability of the filmmaker as the subject. They commended the intelligently crafted narrative, clever use of graphics and skilful editing supporting this well-rounded personal exploration project."

Yinka Bokinni

Best Documentary Presenter

YINKA BOKINNI for Damilola: The Boy Next Door

Acme Films — Channel 4

Yinka Bokinni grew up on the North Peckham Estate in south London – a place that became notorious when her friend, ten-year-old Damilola Taylor was stabbed and killed. But Yinka remembers an idyllic childhood, surrounded by loving family and friends in a tight-knit community. Now, at the age of 30, Yinka is ready to confront the devastating impact her friend’s death had on her community and the lives of almost everyone she knew.

The judges said: "Two decades after the murder of Damilola Taylor, his friend Yinka Bokinni explored the impact of his death on herself and the Peckham community where they lived. Yinka was a compelling presence, offering a nuanced exploration of loss and trauma. This was a deeply personal and original film about what happens when you bury grief."

Two men standing outside a hospital

Little Gem — BBC One

The film follows doctors and twin brothers Chris and Xand van Tulleken through the COVID-19 pandemic at work and at home. It has far more personal consequences than either of them could have imagined. Dr Chris is an Infectious Diseases doctor and wants to understand what the virus is doing to our bodies and why it’s so difficult to treat. Dr Xand wants to examine the impact COVID-19 is having outside our hospitals.

The judges said: "This documentary was filmed when we didn’t know much about the effects of COVID 19, and it was a completely gripping watch with genuine moments of not knowing how things were going to unfold - both for the country, and for Chris and Xand. They are to be commended for allowing themselves to be filmed at their most vulnerable, for managing to offer expert medical insight, whilst also revealing their personal struggles. We felt privileged to witness their journey."

Tabitha Jackson (black and white headshot)

Grierson Trustees’ Award (sponsored by BBC)

Tabitha Jackson

Line producer, Head of Production

Tabitha Jackson is the Director of the Sundance Film Festival and former Arts Commissioner at Channel 4. A vocal supporter of the arts and documentary filmmaking, Tabitha Jackson was named as the Director of the highly influential Sundance Film Festival at the start of 2020. She is the first woman, person of colour and person born outside the US to become the festival’s Director. From 2013 – 2020, Jackson served as Sundance’s Director of the Documentary Film Programme during which time she championed the cultural power of cinematic non-fiction and tried to support a more expansive set of makers and forms.

Previously as Commissioning Editor, Arts at Channel 4, she supported independent and alternative voices and innovative storytelling. She has over 25 years’ experience in arts and documentary filmmaking and served as executive producer on a number of projects for Film4 including Bart Layton’s The Imposter, Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film, Clio Barnard’s The Arbor, Sophie Fiennes’ The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology and Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s 20,000 Days On Earth.

Lorraine Heggessey, Chair of The Griersson Trust said: "To be the first woman, first person of colour, first person born outside the US and the first person from the documentary community to be named director of the internationally-renowned Sundance Festival is an extraordinary achievement. Tabitha Jackson is visionary and inspirational in her support of innovative documentary filmmaking. Her position at the helm of Sundance bodes very well for the future of the global documentary industry.”

Serena Kennedy (headshot)

Grierson Hero of the Year Award (sponsored by 
The Talent Manager)

Serena Kennedy

Line producer, Head of Production

Serena Kennedy was Head of Production/Line Producer on Adam Wishart’s 9/11: Inside the President’s War Room the first BBC/Apple TV+ co production; Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers which premiered at Sundance this year; and Line Producer on Channel 4’s fast turnaround series in response to the killing of George Floyd, Take Your Knee Off My Neck, which is nominated for The Rumi Foundation Best Documentary Short at this year’s awards.

Serena’s credits span highly acclaimed and award-winning cinema and TV feature documentaries, current affairs, documentaries, observational documentaries, docu-drama, daytime, features, fact-ent and children’s documentaries. She has worked with a number of companies including Wish/Art Films, Milk and Honey, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, World Media Rights, Love Productions, Mediadante and Fuuse Films. She worked extensively with Drummer TV where she oversaw all their content and was previously Head of Production at RDF Television West and Maverick Television.

Lorraine Heggessey, Chair of The Griersson Trust said: "There are many unsung heroes in our business: people who work tirelessly and often save the day but are rarely garnered with awards. Serena’s achievements this year are all the more remarkable given the unprecedented challenges of filming during Covid. Her work in navigating the complex logistics of Adam Wishart’s film, 9/11: Inside the President’s War Room was nothing short of miraculous.

“I’m further delighted that through this award The Grierson Trust is able to highlight the pivotal role that production managers play in film and television. Our industry is waking up to the fact that all too often they are under-valued and unappreciated. Serena is a fantastic example of the wide range of skills and talent that a good production manager deploys at every stage of a production. I hope that through celebrating Serena and her work, we can continue to build on our commitment to bring new talent to this field of work as there is a desperate shortage of people working in production management.”

Images & info - The Grierson Trust
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