Watching a documentary film at the cinema is one of those things that very few people do; Michael Moore’s supremely interesting, if sanctimonious, preach-a-thons are the closest things to ‘blockbuster documentaries’ – I’m today coining the phrase ‘blockumentary’ – that the film world has seen in the last decade or so. Generally, it’s big, splashy movies which people pay to see at the theatre, preferring to view an action-packed big screen event than hear a deluge of information on a given topic. What makes Senna such a wonderful movie is that it manages to combine these two disparate styles into a brilliant, gripping whole.
Asif Kapadia’s film is part tribute, part character study, part appraisal of Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian Formula One racing driver who died, aged just 34, in a crash at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Senna was a three-time world champion and is considered one of the greatest drivers the sport has ever seen; his death was not only a colossal loss to the racing world, but shattered the hearts of his legion fans, especially in his native Brazil where his success had given him a godlike popularity.
So to say that the impact of Senna’s death was significant is to understate matters. Kapadia’s film, wonderfully compiled from archive footage, offers an insight into the ferocity of Senna’s competitive spirit, his skill at the wheel, his kind spirit, his affable personality and the effect his successes and untimely death had on everyone associated with him. To assemble a film dealing with such complex and numerous issues without turning it into a gaudy shrine is tough enough, but what sets Senna apart is how captivatingly the information is given to us.
Kapadia’s masterstroke is ultimately a very simple one. He conducted interviews with a number of figures who knew or saw Senna frequently – from his sister to journalists to his team manager – and their responses form the main audio of the film. However, the speakers’ faces are never shown, their dialogue always played over footage of Senna at the time; Kapadia also distances himself from proceedings by never letting us hear his questions.
This is the gift of a true documentarian: realising that the subject is far more important than the studier, and letting the story be told by those present rather than those reflecting. Senna is a film all about emotion – Senna’s own passion for the sport, the joys of his victories and the shocked horror at his passing – and the deeply personal accounts audible throughout offer a painful reminder for those who remember and an eye-opening jolt for those who don’t.
Kapadia’s use of footage is similarly judicious. Combining home movies with television footage, radio coverage and shots from the races themselves, the London filmmaker is able to transport his audience to a series of moments instantly; playing the original Brazilian radio commentary of Senna’s first race win over the footage of it happening lends the sequence a brilliant sense of time and place. Through this combination we’re able to share in the emotions of the time rather than observing them from afar: credit Kapadia, too, for choosing the original commentary (in Brazilian Portuguese, subtitled into English) rather than using English-language audio, to increase the feeling of authenticity in the emotion we hear.
This deft mixing of visual and audial information gives Senna an immediacy and tangibility usually lacking in retrospective documentary work. The interviews with friends are candid, and there are moments where the dual effect of the pictures and sound is profound: footage of Senna discussing his life goals scant months before his fatal crash is saddening, the footage of his family at his funeral almost unbearable.
What Kapadia impressively does as well, however, is to sidestep the obvious pitfall of facilely painting the protagonist as an idealised hero. Although Senna was a giant-hearted star with a penchant for philanthropy almost as voracious as his will to win, we do see moments of anger, of angst, of despair. Several snippets reveal the ever-increasing hatred between Senna and rival driver Alain Prost, others his growing dissatisfaction with the FIA, Formula One’s governing body. We see Ayrton’s profound reaction to the death of fellow driver Roland Ratzenberger, who died in a qualifying accident the day before Senna did, and the ensuing self-doubt which almost led him not race at all (a sequence made all the more heartbreaking by the knowledge that his decision to race would be the one which killed him).
The interviews we see with Senna reveal the man himself as a humble, charismatic man off the track, while the in-car camera shots show him as a magician on it.
Yet Senna is less an homage, more a reflection on a life half-lived. Ayrton Senna will forever be remembered by racing fans as a gifted driver, that much is certain, but even for those of us who don’t follow the sport, this documentary reveals that the man beneath the helmet, and the one behind the name, was extraordinary.
Verdict: A gripping, thrilling, thoroughly interesting look at one of sport’s great careers, and one of its saddest losses. Kapadia’s film is tangible, alchemical: it’s a documentary which for large spells feels more like storytelling than fact, but such was the life of its subject. Offering a deep insight into the sporting psyche for those interesting in F1 and not, Senna is perhaps the most finely crafted, impeccably produced film of the year to date. As magnetic as Senna himself.