The BFI London Film Festival 2021 competition sections are a celebration of the most exciting, innovative new films and cinematic storytelling. Creative, beautiful and often provocative, the nominees showcased an incredible range of talent from across 11 countries. The films explore a fascinating breadth of themes, from cave mapping in the Calabrian mountains to the military dictatorship in 1980s Buenos Aires, playground politics through the eyes of a young Belgian girl and the seemingly simple but ultimately radical life of Luna, a dairy cow. 

Once again placing audiences at the heart of the festival, 2021 saw the return of the popular Audience Award – a precursor to global awards success in 2020 when Thomas Vinterberg won for Another Round. 

The IWC Schaffhausen Filmmaker Bursary Award in association with the BFI returned for its sixth year, with lead judges Phoebe Waller-Bridge and BFI Chief Exec Ben Roberts awarding Harry Wootliff the £50,000 bursary. The bursary is the most significant of its kind in the UK film industry and is establishing itself as an indicator of future filmmaking talent with previous winners including Rose Glass and Daniel Kokotajlo.   

This year’s jury presidents are: Malgorzata Szumowska (Official Competition), Isabel Sandoval (First Feature Competition), Kim Longinotto (Documentary Competition), Felix Barrett (Immersive and XR Competition) and Rose Glass (Short Film Competition).

The winners

Hit the Road – Panah Panahi, Official Competition (Best Film Award)

Hit the Road (2021)

Panah Panahi’s thrilling debut is by turns tender, quirky, even laugh-out-loud funny – a wondrously observed reflection on family and the ambivalence of saying goodbye.

Like every great road movie, Panahi’s drama is all about the journey. In the chaotic claustrophobia of the car, an energetic child (Rayan Sarlak) clambers over his surly father (Hassan Madjooni) whose broken leg – and mood – take up considerable space. In the front, mother (Pantea Panahiha) fusses over her other son in the driver’s seat (Amin Simiar), whose sullen face stays fixed on the deserted horizon. Nobody mentions where they are going, but knowledge of their unspoken destination causes concern, turning despair into affection and some very eccentric behaviour. The car stutters along to a bold, brilliant soundtrack of 1970s Iranian pop, full of heart, nostalgia and the melancholy of separation. 

Deftly navigating a sea of conflicting emotions, Panahi’s debut heralds an exciting new talent. This journey along the dusty road of life is a treasure that might just break your heart.

The Best Film award recognises inspiring and distinctive filmmaking that captures the essence of cinema. The essence of life! At all times in cinema history, but perhaps during a pandemic especially, we are looking for ways to connect to life. Our choice is for a film that made us laugh and cry and feel alive.Malgorzata Szumowska, Official Competition president

Playground – Laura Wandel, First Feature Competition (Sutherland Award)

Playground (2021)

The harsh world of playground politics is seen through the eyes of a seven-year-old girl in a gripping debut from Belgian writer-director Laura Wandel. The original title, meaning ‘a world’, suggests that a school is a self-enclosed universe with its own customs and abuses – and a microcosm of the injustices outside. 

Nora (mesmerising newcomer Maya Vanderbeque) arrives in a new school, nervous about leaving her dad and yearning for the protection of big brother Abel (Günter Duret). In fact, it’s Abel who faces bullying – and when Nora tries to help him, his ordeal only worsens. Laura Wandel’s extraordinary debut is a triumph in terms of focus and concision, with the action restricted to the school premises and the camera held exactly at Nora’s child’s-eye height. Arguably one of the best films ever made about childhood; without doubt, one of the most gripping, and lucidly truthful.

It’s an intimate film that everyone can identify with and connect with, and yet has a striking and singular voice, with a courageous commitment to its vision. It has a visceral ability to capture beautifully and clearly how we are shaped by our experiences, and through an insular setting shows us a microcosm for the human condition, laying bare the power dynamics of people. It left us wanting to see more from this bold, audacious filmmaker.Isabel Sandoval, First Feature Competition president

The Sutherland Award jury also gave a special commendation to Small Body, directed by Laura Samani: “We want to give a special mention to Small Body for its intense naturalism and fable-like qualities, that immersed us in another world.”

Becoming Cousteau – Liz Garbus, Documentary Competition (Grierson Award)

Becoming Cousteau (2021)

Get your woolly red beanie ready. This riveting doc brings a fresh take on the life of the inspiring inventor, explorer, environmentalist and filmmaker Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau. From tirelessly sailing the seas aboard his famous ship Calypso – capturing staggering images for the environmental cause – to inventing underwater breathing device the aqualung and winning the 1956 Palme d’Or with Louis Malle for their film The Silent World, few people can claim having led such an intrepid and rich life as Cousteau. 

Oscar-nominated director Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?) crafts an all-encompassing and utterly engrossing portrait of the man, featuring a wealth of never-before-seen archive footage, remastered in 4K for startling clarity. What ultimately emerges is the story of someone who transformed ideas about our relationship with the sea and became an early campaigner for a safe and clean climate. Becoming Cousteau shows that this explorer’s story is more relevant now than ever.

The film was a fascinating look at the life of Jacques Cousteau, but more importantly it highlights the most pressing issue of our time, Climate Change and urges us all to take action now. He witnessed the devastation first hand, and this influenced his path to become a champion for the environment. He used his considerable influence, not only with his many followers but World leaders, to urge us as human beings to protect our planet.Kim Longinotto, Documentary Competition president

The Grierson Award jury also gave a special commendation to Babi Yar. Context, directed by Sergey Loznitsa: “We want to offer Babi Yar. Context a commendation – an often horrifying account of the Babi Yar executions in the Ukraine in 1941.”

Only Expansion – Duncan Speakman, Immersive Art and XR Competition

Only Expansion (2021)

As sea levels rise and wildfires burn, Only Expansion remixes the sound of the city around you to conjure up a sonic portrait of how your life might change in the future. A beautifully produced guidebook prompts you to explore London’s South Bank; you can choose your own route as customised headphones capture and manipulate the sounds that surround you. Field recordings of climate collapse bleed into this environment – you might hear your city as it sinks beneath waves or is battered by desert winds. A powerful and impressionistic reflection on what it means to live on a planet in crisis, Only Expansion connects the here to the elsewhere, letting you experience our troubled environment through sound.

This is the first year that LFF Expanded is giving an award. When we were thinking about a film festival giving an award for immersion, we’ve chosen a piece that we feel put us inside a film. On a normal grey morning on the South Bank, it transformed the world around us and made it truly cinematic.Felix Barrett, Immersive Art and XR Competition president

The immersive art and XR jury also gave a special commendation to Virtually There by Leon Oldstrong: “We would like to add a special mention to a piece that made us cry, and needs to be seen around the country.”

Love, Dad – Diana Cam Van Nguyen, Short Film Competition (Short Film Award)

Love, Dad (2021)

Filmmaker Diana Cam Van Nguyen’s heartfelt personal essay exploring her fractured relationship with her father and navigating Vietnamese-Czech culture.

An irresistible marrying of technical wizardry and emotional precision. It is a moving and exquisitely crafted piece of filmmaking.Rose Glass, Short Film Competition president

The Short Film Award jury also gave a special commendation to both The Bang Straws, directed by Michelle Williams Gamaker, and Precious Hair & Beauty, directed by John Ogunmuyiwa: “Two bold and brilliant shorts helmed by London filmmakers which we really loved.” 

Costa Brava, Lebanon – Mounia Akl, Audience Award

Costa Brava Lebanon (2021)

The simmering tension of unresolved disputes contrasts with the electricity of first love in Mounia Akl’s dazzling debut, heralding a striking new cinematic voice.

The competition winners were announced during a virtual ceremony by the jury presidents. 

The Official Competition jury was led by acclaimed director Malgorzata Szumowska whose latest film Never Gonna Snow Again screened in last year’s festival; the First Feature Competition (Sutherland Award) jury was headed up by director, writer, actor and editor Isabel Sandoval whose film Lingua Franca was selected as part of the festival’s 2019 Official Competition line-up; the BAFTA-winning documentary director of Pink Saris, Kim Longinotto led the jury of the Grierson Award for Best Documentary; the Immersive Art and XR Competition was led by the founder and artistic director of immersive theatre company Punchdrunk, Felix Barrett; and finally, director Rose Glass, whose received acclaim in the 2019 LFF with St Maud, rounded out the jury presiding over the Short Film Competition. 

Other jurors previously announced were:

  • Official Competition (Best Film Award) – Jessica Kiang, Nina Gold, Aleem Khan and Mark Cousins
  • First Feature Competition (Sutherland Award) – Prano Bailey-Bond, Hannah Strong, Aki Omoshaybi and Nabhaan Rizwan
  • Documentary Competition (Grierson Award) – Peter Murimi, Natasha Dack and Allison Gardner
  • Immersive Art and XR Competition — Bruno Martelli and Ruth Gibson
  • Short Film Competition – Elena Lazic, Amir El-Masry, Madeleine Molyneaux and Baff Akoto

Shortlisted filmmakers for the IWC Bursary were Lee Haven Jones, director of debut feature The Feast, Harry Wootliff writer and director of her second feature True Things and Rob Savage, co-writer, producer, executive producer and director of his second feature DASHCAM.

A panel of senior industry figures – BFI Festivals Director Tricia Tuttle, Film4 Head of Creative Oliver Madden, BBC Film Commissioning Executive Eva Yates, BFI Senior Development and Production Executive Farhana Bhula, and film critic, broadcaster and host Anna Smith – selected the shortlist of IWC Bursary filmmakers. Multi award-winning writer, actor and producer Phoebe Waller-Bridge, known for the BBC 3 and Amazon series Fleabag, which she starred in, created and produced, joined BFI Chief Executive Ben Roberts to select this years’ winner.