Being seen is not about being famous, it’s about being understood. The selection of documentaries at this year’s London Film Festival include a number of films exploring the idea that, even in our apparent differences, we’re not so different from each other.

Last year I wrote about immersive empathy in documentary cinema. In the throes of lockdown, films like Stray and The Reason I Jump articulated the world through someone – or something, in the case of the dogs of Stray – else’s eyes. As the world adjusts to a new normal, this year’s selection shifts the conversation from how we see the world to how the world views us. Three films in particular – Citizen Ashe, Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest, and Nascondino – challenge viewer bias and find the universality of the human condition. This feels especially poignant at a time when our current shared experience sees us struggle to connect in so many ways.

Citizen Ashe (2021)

I’ve never been a world-renowned tennis player, but in Citizen Ashe you’re not only invited to appreciate the remarkable athletic journey of Arthur Ashe, three-time Grand Slam winner, but to engage with his other, equally remarkable journey as a social activist. Ashe was a pioneer not just on the court but off it too. He was a Black man navigating white spaces in tennis during the 1960s and 70s. Shunned by vocal Black civil rights activists for his perceived desire for white acceptance, and only valued by affluent white people for his athletic prowess, Ashe fought for self-determination. Only he could say who he was. 

Citizen Ashe follows his riveting path from the tennis courts to political and social awareness. Ashe was the first Black man to win Wimbledon, as well being the first American celebrity to highlight the plight of Black South Africans in apartheid-era South Africa. He was an active civil rights supporter and, in later life, a prominent HIV/AIDs activist. Sam Pollard, co-director of the film, describes Ashe as navigating how the world saw him with “a level of dignity and integrity we should all try to measure up to”.

I’m not an arcade gamer, but I felt like one in Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest. A pulsating, visually engaging nail-biter about a group of friends who come together to help Kim ‘Cannon Arm’, a magnificently mulleted, shy 55-year-old on a mission to break a world record of playing Gyruss (an extremely hard 1983 Konami game) for 100 hours straight on a single coin.

This is more than a Danish reboot of 2007’s The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. Director Mads Hedegaard is far more interested in exploring the community within the Bip Bip Bar in Denmark. This close-knit group of eccentric misfits are shown to be much more than how they’re perceived in the outside world, where they are rejected for not fitting the ideals of how men should be. Hedegaard’s film is a perceptive, philosophical take on the power of friendship, community and spaces that allow people to be whatever they want to be. 

Nascondino (2021)

Community is also at the heart of the cinematically stunning Nascondino. Director Victoria Fiore’s debut feature casts a mythological, dream-like lens on the Spanish quarters of Naples. Addressing the surge of youth violence in Italy, a new state law has been introduced allowing for the removal of vulnerable children from families associated with organised crime in order to break ‘generational criminality’. Entoni, a rambunctious but good-natured 12-year-old, is deemed ‘at risk’ because his grandmother, Dora, was once a crime boss. In Entoni’s last week of freedom and the years that follow, the effects of being mischaracterised by the Italian government and the media bare down on him and his mother. Nascondino stands in defiance of these perceptions, allowing this Neapolitan community the autonomy to articulate their world themselves. 

Many people know the effort of navigating spaces not meant for people like them. Many have felt eyes of suspicion from others and fought preconceived notions of how one should live. These three films use the power of cinema and storytelling to celebrate the resilience of those struggling through.

BFI Membership

Become a BFI Member from £37 to enjoy priority London Film Festival booking as well as other great benefits all year round.

Join today