Celebrating the Golden anniversary of the Grierson Awards with a list of must-see documentaries from the last 50 years
These genre-defining documentaries chart the history and development of the genre from the 70s to the present day, forming an exciting selection of work which every factual film lover should see.
The films and series have been chosen for their overall excellence and showcase the work of British and international directors. They’re films that have acted as a catalyst for change, that have sparked strong reactions, broken new ground or reflected the complexities of our social, political or natural world.
Chairman of The Grierson Trust, Lorraine Heggessey says: “We’ve put together a list of films that we feel represent some of the best in factual filmmaking, demonstrating how the art of documentary has developed over the last five decades – from genre-defining classics to those that shocked their viewers, or have embraced technology in extraordinary ways. We want to get everyone talking about and watching documentaries in the run up to this year’s Grierson Awards. We’re hoping to stimulate a discussion about which documentaries have had the most impact or been the most enjoyable to watch and I’m sure everyone will have an opinion about what should and shouldn’t be on the list!”
The documentaries have been collated across six categories – Challenging the Status Quo, Personal Stories, Do Look Back, Took Us Somewhere New, Bucket List Docs and New Ways of Storytelling and feature some of the most famous names in filmmaking encompassing a wide range of programmes from popular favourites (Educating Yorkshire) to technological advancers (The Blue Planet), and classics (The World at War) to societal gamechangers (Thames Valley Police – A Complaint of Rape).
Revisit landmark documentaries on BBC iPlayer
We're thrilled to have partnered with BBC iPlayer, who have compiled 20 documentaries in a special Game-Changing Documentaries section on iPlayer for viewers to revisit.
More on the categories
Some of the most impactful documentaries of the last 50 years have been listed in the Challenging the Status Quo category. From Molly Dineen’s incisive 2007 documentary about the state of the farming industry, The Lie of the Land, to Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 2013 film Blackfish about the controversial captivity of killer whales, the category is jam-packed with films that brought about change.
The Do Look Back selection pays tribute to the filmmakers who were acclaimed for their skilful re-examination of 20th century events, which encouraged audiences to view history through a different lens. James Rogan’s 2018 film about the murder of Stephen Lawrence – Stephen: The Murder that Changed a Nation –and Leon Gast’s 1996 film When We Were Kings, about the 1974 heavyweight bout between Mohammed Ali and George Foreman, are perfect examples of this.
In the Personal Stories category, The Trust has listed films which have taken viewers inside the lives of the famous and infamous, the ordinary and the extraordinary. Nick Broomfield’s 2004 film about the mental state of a murderess on death row, Aileen, Life and Death of a Serial Killer, Marilyn Gaunt’s Kelly and her Sisters, about family life in a condemned house on a run-down estate in Birmingham, and Ursula Macfarlane’s moving 2007 film about marital break-up – Breaking Up with the Joneses –epitomise the ability of the documentary to shine a light on people in all their fineness and frailty.
Took Us Somewhere New celebrates films which have transported viewers to places they would never normally have access. Alastair Fothergill’s globally-viewed 2001 series about the rich tapestry of life in the world’s ocean – The Blue Planet, Jennie Livingstone’s warm 1990 film about the New York drag scene Paris is Burning and Louis Theroux’s time spent behind bars at Miami Mega Jail show how the camera can take us to worlds we would never normally see.
Documentary has been consistently innovating, developing and breaking new ground over the last 50 years and the New Ways of Storytelling category looks at the seminal works which have redefined the genre. From Paul Watson’s ground-breaking 1973 series – The Family – about an ordinary, working-class family in Reading, to the staggeringly popular 1997 fly-on-the-windscreen series Driving School, the category lauds the filmmakers who have found innovative ways to ply their craft and tell their stories.
Finally, the Bucket List Docs category highlights the documentaries which, though by no means definitive, should be on everybody’s must-see lists as some of the most captivating, category-defying films from across decades. These include Paul Hamann hard-hitting 1987 recount of the days leading to Edward Earl Johnson’s execution Fourteen Days in May, Werner Herzog’s heart-breaking 2005 documentary about grizzly bear activists Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard (Grizzly Man), and Joshua Oppenheimer’s chilling The Act of Killing.
Lorraine Heggesey concludes: “Assembling the list of films has been the cause of much debate amongst Trustees and colleagues, so much so that our aim of limiting it to 50 documentaries proved impossible, and we hope that the selected titles will continue to spark the imagination and interest of factual film fans everywhere.”
Join the conversation
Take a look at the list in full below, read more about our first category, Bucket List Docs and join in the conversation... which documentaries from the last 50 years would you add? Let us know! @griersontrust | #Grierson50
The Power of the Doc: Grierson at 50 list of must-see documentaries from the last 50 years
Bucket List Docs
Grey Gardens: Maysles Brothers (1975)
This 1975 US documentary transported viewers into the eccentric world of two aging, reclusive relatives of Jackie Kennedy Onassis - Edie Bouvier Beale and her mother, Edith - who lived in poverty in a rotting Long Island mansion. | Watch on Prime Video and YouTube
Fourteen Days in May: Paul Hamann (1987)
Hard-hitting1987 film recounting the final days before the execution of Edward Earl Johnson, an American prisoner convicted of rape and murder and imprisoned in the Mississippi State Penitentiary. | Watch on BBC iPlayer
Roger & Me: Michael Moore (1989)
Michael Moore’s ground-breaking 1989 documentary debut chronicled the events as the world’s largest corporation, General Motors, turned its hometown of Flint, Michigan, into a ghost town. In his quest to discover why, Flint native Michael Moore attempted to meet the chairman, Roger Smith, and persuade him to visit Flint to see the destruction first hand. | Watch on Prime Video, YouTube and Apple TV
The Gleaners and I: Agnès Varda (2000)
Agnès Varda’s 2000 documentary saw the French cinema icon exploring the world of modern-day gleaners: those living on the margins who survive by foraging for what society throws away. | Watch on Curzon
The Act of Killing: Joshua Oppenheimer (2012)
Chilling documentary which challenged former Indonesian death-squad leaders to re-enact their mass-killings in whichever cinematic genres they wished, including classic Hollywood crime scenarios and lavish musical numbers. | Watch on YouTube, Apple TV and Curzon
Hoop Dreams: Steve James (1994)
Film following the lives of two inner-city Chicago boys, Gates and Agee, who dream of basketball stardom. With the NBA in sight and with the support of their close-knit families, they battle the social and physical obstacles that stand in their way. | Watch on BBC iPlayer
The Thin Blue Line: Errol Morris (1988)
Errol Morris’s award-winning 1988 film successfully argued that Randall Dale Adams was wrongly convicted for murder by a corrupt justice system in Dallas County, Texas.
Grizzly Man: Werner Herzog (2005)
Werner Herzog’s heart-breaking film chronicling the life and death of grizzly bear activists Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard, who were killed in October of 2003 while living among grizzly bears in Alaska. | Watch on Prime Video, YouTube and Apple TV
For Sama: Waad al-Kateab (2020)
Award-winning documentary filmed through five years of the uprising in Aleppo which sees Waad al-Kateab share the epic and intimate journey of where she fell in love, married and gave birth to her daughter Sama. | Watch on All 4
Challenging the Status Quo
Blackfish: Gabriela Cowperthwaite (2013)
Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s controversial film tells the story of Tilikum, a performing killer whale that killed several people while in captivity. Combines shocking footage with emotional interviews to explore the creature’s extraordinary nature, the species’ cruel treatment in captivity, the lives and losses of the trainers and the pressures brought to bear by the multi-billion-dollar sea-park industry. | Watch on Netflix
The Lie of the Land: Molly Dineen (2007)
Molly Dineen’s incisive 2007 documentary explored the way in which life for farmers, and other people who depended on the countryside for their livelihood, changed for the worse as a result of the decline in home-grown food and the banning of foxhunting. It portrayed the resentment felt by country people to changes being imposed by a government they felt neglected their wishes in preference to those of city-dwellers.
The Age of Stupid: Franny Armstrong (2008)
This documentary/drama/animation hybrid starred Pete Postlethwaite. He played a future archivist looking back at old footage from the year 2008 to understand why humankind failed to address climate change. | Watch on BBC iPlayer
Thames Valley Police: A Complaint of Rape: Roger Graef (1982)
The third part of Roger Graef’s BAFTA-winning 1980s documentary series, which saw him gain unique access to film the day-to-day work of the Thames Valley Police. This controversial episode, which saw a woman reporting a rape case being treated dismissively by three male officers, contributed significantly to the ongoing debate about the role of the police.
Divorce Iranian Style: Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini (1998)
Award-winning 1998 documentary directed by Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini which chronicles the legal battles of three Iranian couples as they seek divorce. The film documents the couples as they go through the various legal processes and cultural barriers and highlights the poignant differences of men and women in the Iranian court system. | Watch on BFI Player
Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution: James Lebrecht and Nicole Newman (2020)
Oscar-nominated 2020 documentary recounting the story of a ground-breaking US summer camp. The camp galvanises a group of disabled teens to help build a movement and forge a new path towards greater equality. | Watch on Netflix
13th: Ava DuVernay (2016)
Ava DuVernay film explores the history of racial inequality in the United States, focusing on the fact that the nation's prisons are disproportionately filled with African Americans. Scholars, activists and politicians analyse the criminalisation of African Americans against the backdrop of the US prison boom. | Watch on Netflix
I Am Not Your Negro: Raoul Peck (2016)
Based on the unfinished manuscript of the late author James Baldwin, this Oscar-nominated film directed by Raoul Peck touches on the lives and assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr and Medgar Evers as it explores the continued peril America faces from institutionalised racism. | Watch on BBC iPlayer
New Ways of Storytelling
The 'Up' Series: Michael Apted (1964 – 2019)
Michael Apted’s seminal series of documentary films examining the lives of fourteen British children from seven years old and into adulthood. The series started in 1964 and spanned several decades. | Watch on BritBox, ITV Hub
The Family: Paul Watson (1973)
Paul Watson’s 1974 fly on the wall documentary series followed the everyday lives of the working-class Wilkins family from Reading. The first of its kind in the UK, it started a trend for observational documentary making. | Watch on YouTube
Handsworth Songs: John Akomfrah (1986)
This 1986 Grierson Award-winning film directed by John Akomfrah intermixed newsreel, still photos, interviews, and abstract imagery to give a multi-layered account of those involved in or observing the 1985 Handsworth riots and more significantly their personal reflections.
Tina Goes Shopping: Penny Woolcock (1999)
A unique collaboration between the residents of the housing estates in Leeds and filmmaker Penny Woolcock, Tina Goes Shopping is a powerful mixture of drama and documentary filmmaking, centred around a single mum who steals to order for her own ‘shopping’ business, her drug-addict boyfriend and her father – a mobster in charge of the local drugs trade. | Watch on YouTube
Driving School: Francesca Joseph (1997)
A smash hit for the BBC, this 1997 series filmed ordinary people via a fly-on-the-dashboard camera as they experienced the failures and triumphs of learning to drive. Edited more like a soap opera, it made for compelling and entertaining television and led to a boom in docusoaps and reality TV. | Watch on BBC iPlayer
Drinking for England: Brian Hill (1998)
Brian Hill’s 1998 film explored the importance of attitudes towards alcohol consumption in English society by following five subjects through a unique blend of interviews, poetry recitals and song. | Watch on BBC iPlayer
The Power of Nightmares: Adam Curtis (2004)
In this powerful documentary, Adam Curtis explored how the illusory threat of a hidden network of terror has come to dominate global politics. Using mainly archive footage, it argued that radical Islamism as a massive, sinister organisation, is a myth perpetrated by leaders of many countries – and particularly neoconservatives in the U.S – in an attempt to unite and inspire their people. | Watch on BBC iPlayer
The Arbor: Clio Barnard (2010)
A mix of documentary and fictional elements, The Arbor tells the story of doomed playwright Andrea Dunbar, who wrote about the difficult life she endured growing up in England's Bradford housing projects. Archival footage featuring Dunbar is presented, along with interviews with family members. Excerpts from Dunbar's most famous play, The Arbor, are performed on the streets of her hometown and at Buttershaw Estates, where she lived, with actors lip-syncing interviews. | Watch on BFI Player, Curzon and Apple TV
Senna: Asif Kapadia (2010)
Asif Kapadia’s multi-award winning 2010 film about the life and death of Brazilian motor-racing champion Ayrton Senna focused on Senna's racing career in Formula One, from his debut in the 1984 Brazilian Grand Prix to his death in an accident at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. With particular emphasis on his rivalry with fellow driver Alain Prost, it used archival racetrack footage and home video clips provided by the Senna family and has no formal commentary. | Watch on YouTube, Prime Video and Apple TV
Welcome to Chechnya: The Gay Purge: David France (2020)
This 2020 film by American reporter and author David France centred on the anti-gay purges in Chechnya of the late 2010s, filming LGBT Chechen refugees using hidden cameras as they made their way out of Russia through a network of safehouses aided by activists. | Watch on BBC iPlayer
Took Us Somewhere New
Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised): Ahmire ‘Questlove’ Thompson (2021)
Directed by Ahmire ‘Questlove’ Thompson, Summer of Soul looks back at the legendary 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival which celebrated African-American music and culture and promoted Black pride and unity. | Watch on Disney+
Educating Yorkshire: David Brindley and Grace Reynolds (2013)
Following the lives of the teachers and students at Thornhill Community Academy in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, this hugely popular, International Emmy award-winning series was a warm and humorous exploration of what it's like to grow up or work in a secondary school in the heart of a diverse northern community. | Watch on All 4
A House Through Time: Various (2018 – 2021)
In this factual mini-series Historian David Olusoga explores 180 years of British history from the point of view of a house and its owners and inhabitants over the centuries. He delves into city archives, explores old newspaper reports and meets the living descendants of those who were connected to the house. | Watch on BBC iPlayer
War in the Blood: Arthur Cary (2020)
This intimate and moving documentary followed two patients through ground-breaking 'first in-human' trials for a treatment described as the beginning of the end of cancer. As the patients and the clinical team battling to save their lives weigh up hope with realism, the feature length film stands as a powerful statement on the contribution of terminally ill patients to the world of clinical research. | Watch on Vimeo
Paris is Burning: Jennie Livingstone (1990)
Jennie Livingstone’s 1990 film chronicles the late 80s ballroom culture of New York City and the African American, Latino, gay, and transgender communities involved in it. Considered to be an invaluable documentary of the end of the "Golden Age" of New York City drag balls, it is a thoughtful exploration of race, class, gender and sexuality in America. | Watch on BBC iPlayer
The Blue Planet: Alastair Fothergill (2001)
This jaw-dropping global hit made by the BBC’s acclaimed Natural History Unit, was described as the first ever comprehensive series on the natural history of the world's oceans. Narrated by Sir David Attenborough, each of the eight 50-minute episodes examined a different aspect of marine life, with the stunning underwater photography featuring creatures and behaviour that had previously never been filmed. | Watch on BBC iPlayer
Jews: Vanessa Engel (2008)
Directed by Vanessa Engel, this 2008 documentary series gave an unprecedented insight into Jewish life in contemporary Britain. Documenting the beliefs and culture of very different kinds of Jews, from atheist and secular Jews through to fully observant ultra-orthodox Jews, the series looked at family histories, belief systems, relationships, and the psychology and meaning of what it is to be Jewish. | Watch on BBC iPlayer
Louis Theroux: Miami Mega Jail: Emma Cooper (2011)
This two-part series took viewers within the walls of the Miami-Dade County Jail Pre-Trial Detention Center, one of the most notorious sections of the Miami jail system. Here Louis discovers a strange and violent jail culture where the men fight each other for food, status, and just to pass the time. | Watch on BBC iPlayer
Virunga: Orlando von Einsidel (2014)
A powerful combination of investigative journalism and nature documentary, Virunga is the true story of a group of courageous people risking their lives to build a better future at Congo’s Virunga National Park, one of the most bio-diverse places on Earth and home to the planet’s last remaining mountain gorillas. Following an embattled team of park rangers, the multi award-winning film is a gripping exposé of the realities of life in the Congo. | Watch on Netflix
Collective: Unravelling a Scandal: Alexander Nanau (2019)
Critically acclaimed 2019 Romanian documentary film directed by Alexander Nanau. The film centred on the 2016 public health scandal following the Colectiv nightclub fire, following dual stories of investigative journalists at Romanian newspaper Gazeta Sporturilor uncovering public healthcare corruption and maladministration, and the government's response to the crisis at the Ministry of Health. | Watch on BBC iPlayer
Kelly and Her Sisters: Marilyn Gaunt (2001)
Directed by Marilyn Gaunt, this BAFTA-winning series provided an affecting record of the day-to-day life of a family living in a condemned house on a run-down estate in Birmingham.
The Imposter: Bart Layton (2012)
This 2012 documentary film about the 1997 case of a French confidence trickster Frédéric Bourdin, who pretended to be Nicholas Patrick Barclay, an American boy who had disappeared in Texas at the age of 13 in 1994. | Watch on Prime Video and Apple TV
Aileen, Life and Death of a Serial Killer: Nick Broomfield (2003)
Nick Broomfield’s 2004 film about the serial killer Aileen Wuornos, a street prostitute convicted of killing six men in Florida. Interviewing an increasingly unstable Wuornos, Broomfield captures the distorted mind of a murderer whom the state of Florida deems of sound mind – and therefore fit to execute. | Watch on Prime Video
Breaking up with the Joneses: Ursula Macfarlane (2007)
In Ursula Macfarlane’s moving 2007 film two separate film crews follow husband and wife over the nine months of their divorce. The result is an innovative and powerful record of the collapse of a modern marriage and break-up of a family.
How to Die: Simon's Choice: Rowan Deacon (2014)
This 2016 documentary tells the dramatic and poignant story of one man facing the heart-wrenching decision of whether to end his life at a suicide clinic after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease. | Watch on BBC iPlayer
Three Salons at the Seaside: Philippa Lowthorpe (1994)
Directed by Philippa Lowthorpe, this film follows the staff and customers of three Blackpool hairdressing salons where an elderly community carries on its daily life oblivious to the hordes of tourists on its doorstep. Stories of love and loss abound as the subjects determine to carry on and make the best of things with a sense of humour. | Watch on BBC iPlayer
Uprising: Steve McQueen and James Rogan (2021)
This three-part documentary series made for the BBC by Steve McQueen and James Rogan depicted the tragedy and aftermath of three key events in 1981 - the New Cross Fire, The Brixton Riots and The Black Peoples Day of Action - which it argued would go on to define race relations in the United Kingdom for a generation. | Watch on BBC iPlayer
Life, Love, Death in A Day: Sue Bourne (2009)
Sue Bourne’s extraordinary documentary captured the joy and heartbreak of an ordinary day in modern Britain through the births, marriages and funerals that took place in one city over twenty-four hours including a longed-for first child, a pagan wedding and the tragic death of a younger brother. | Real Stories YouTube
Do Look Back
Shoah: Claude Lanzmann (1985)
Claude Lanzmann's epic, nearly nine-and-a-half-hour documentary recounts the story of the Holocaust through interviews with witnesses, including both perpetrators and survivors, about the devastating and horrific acts committed during the Second World War. | Watch on BFI Player
One Day in September: Kevin MacDonald (1999)
Kevin MacDonald’s monumental documentary revealed the true story of how the Palestinian terrorist group Black September held Israeli athletes hostage at the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich. Narrated by Michael Douglas.
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room: Alex Gibney (2005)
Alex Gibney's eye-opening documentary explored the infamous Enron corporation, showcasing the company’s many faulty and corrupt business practices and how they led to its eventual downfall. | Watch on Mubi, Apple TV and YouTube
When We Were Kings: Leon Gast (1996)
Leon Gast’s classic documentary tells the story of the iconic, 1974 world heavyweight championship bout between defending champion, George Foreman, and the underdog challenger, the legendary Muhammad Ali. | Watch on Prime Video
The World at War: Jeremy Isaacs (1973)
Jeremy Isaacs’ ground-breaking 26-part documentary series chronicles the events of the deadliest conflict in history - World War II - from its roots in the 1920s to the aftermath and the lives it profoundly influenced. Narrated by actor Laurence Olivier. | Watch on UKTV Play
Man on Wire: James Marsh (2008)
2008 documentary chronicling tightrope walker Philippe Petit's daring, but illegal, high-wire routine performed between New York City's World Trade Center's twin towers in 1974, considered by many to be "the artistic crime of the century". | Watch on Prime Video and Apple TV
OJ: Made in America: Ezra Edelman (2016)
Ezra Edelman’s 2016 documentary chronicled the rise and fall of O.J. Simpson, whose extremely controversial, high-profile murder trial exposed the extent of American racial tensions, revealing a fractured and divided nation. | Watch on BBC iPlayer
Stephen: The Murder that Changed a Nation: James Rogan (2018)
2018 documentary, mini-series that recounted the heart-breaking story of the murder of British teenager Stephen Lawrence, at the hands of a gang of white teenagers, who walked out of the incident unscathed due to the underlying racism and corruption within the police force. | Watch on BBC iPlayer
High Society Brides: Hannah Berryman (2010)
This 2010 observational documentary series saw director Hannah Berryman track down five blue-blooded young women who were featured announcing their engagements in Country Life magazine.
Once Upon a Time in Iraq: James Bluemel (2020)
Highly acclaimed series charting the 2003 US-led coalition invasion of Iraq - which overthrew Saddam Hussein and his government - and the subsequent occupation, civil war and conflict against Islamic State. | Watch on BBC iPlayer
Published: 5 October 2022