Friday, August 26, 2011

Asif Kapadia's Saint And Senna

Asif Kapadia, director of the documentary "Senna" . 
Omar P.L. Moore


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
day, August 26, 2011


BORN AND RAISED in Hackney, North London, Asif Kapadia, 39, is a supporter of Liverpool Football Club, of English Premier League soccer.  "I guess I shouldn't be saying that, even though I was born down the road from Tottenham," Mr. Kapadia admitted recently.

"They're not doing well right now," the BAFTA-winning filmmaker says of Liverpool.  (A day after this interview Liverpool would pick up their first win of the new season, against none other than Arsenal, a bitter close local rival of Tottenham Hotspur, a win that might have left the director's football standing among his friends in North London either ever more tenuous or intriguing.)

By now you've likely guessed that Mr. Kapadia, the acclaimed director of such films as "The Warrior" and "Far North", is a sports fan.  He likes Formula One racing -- not a household sport for a vast majority of Americans the way NASCAR is.  For decades Formula One has produced champions from around the globe.  Like NASCAR, Formula One has its personalities, and in the 1970s and 80s Formula One had many: Niki Lauda, Jackie Stewart, Emerson Fittipaldi, James Hunt and Nigel Mansell -- to name just a few -- champions one and all.

In the new documentary "Senna" Mr. Kapadia spotlights perhaps the most legendary of Formula One icons, Ayrton Senna, the beloved Brazilian racing driver whose abrupt death seventeen years ago shocked an adoring nation and the Formula One community.  A three-time F1 world champion, Mr. Senna had attributes many of his competitors did not: good looks, charisma, mega-star quality, fans who viewed him as a god, a strong sense of justice and many, many attractive women. 

"As a driver he could do things with a car that people wouldn't think of doing," Mr. Kapadia said.  "He was the best at Monaco (the Monaco Grand Prix race), which is the ultimate test for a driver.  He still holds the record for the most wins in Monaco.  He was a tough guy on the track -- people kind of accused him of being dangerous and crashing into people, but he was the one that cared the most about people off the track.  He was the one fighting for safety.  He was the one worried about the other drivers.  He was the one fighting corruption.  There's just so many layers to his character.  And then you've got his faith."

As he talks in detail about his documentary subject Mr. Kapadia's penetrating gaze is offset by his friendly, relaxed conversational manner.  Wearing a crisp black shirt and dark blue jeans, Mr. Kapadia, a professorial gentleman, energetically gives an A to Z primer on Ayrton Senna.  Mr. Kapadia was talking to someone who knew of Mr. Senna, who raced from 1984 t0 1994.  Yet even those who knew him or knew of him will see him in an expanded, transformational light in "Senna" as a multidimensional figure who barely had time to assess the magnitude of his impact on people and Formula One.

Ayrton Senna was a man ahead of his time, enamored with winning as much as with his faith in God.  For Mr. Senna both of these variables were inextricably linked, but the director also recalled a less intense side of the late champion racing driver.  "There is almost a childishness or naïveté to him...even his humor was childish, in a way.  And that's what I like about him.  He wasn't knowing."

Filled with archival footage, "Senna" has the structure of a heavyweight battle royale of personalities fitting of a feature film.  In one corner is Ayrton Senna, the people's champion, and in the other corner is Formula One champion Alain Prost, a self-styled, almost smug, model of consistency and winning.  There are other larger-than-life figures on the landscape.  Political skirmishes.  Women who watch Mr. Senna's every move.  Drama.  Irony.  Greek tragedy.

To get these many dimensions on the big screen Mr. Kapadia and the film's producers dived in to literally days of footage.

"We saw hours of footage that no one's ever seen before.  We had access to Bernie Ecclestone's archive -- the guy who runs the sport, the supremo of Formula One.  No one's ever been allowed in.  So the producers were able to negotiate a deal where we could get not only footage from him but actually have access to the archive.  There was a longer version of the film on [that fateful weekend in 1994] and it's unbearable to watch.

"I've seen the film hundreds of times -- I don't know how many times I've seen it but it's moving every time."

Ayrton Senna during a victory ceremony in a moment from Asif Kapadia's documentary "Senna". Universal Pictures/ESPN Films

Mr. Kapadia changed the dynamic of his documentary to cultivate a more intimate experience, eliminating the standard talking-head interludes, replacing them with conversational voiceover.

"There is a version of the film that's an hour longer where you do see talking heads.  That version I want people to see after the cinema version," said the director.  (The English language version of the extended edition of "Senna" will be available on DVD and Blu-Ray in the United Kingdom on October 10.)

In most other sports the playing fields are more or less level, even with small inequities.  Not so in Formula One, where the deck is stacked, blatantly. 

"Formula One is a very unusual sport," explained Mr. Kapadia.  "You've got one (racing) team (i.e. MacLaren or Williams-Renault) that has got more money than anyone else, with the best engineers, the best driver.  You know, they've got the most backing and sponsors.  And they will race against a team with hardly any money, with, you know, the weakest car, the weakest engine.  And the guy with the most money and the best car starts at the front.  And the weakest one starts at the back.  And then you're meant to race.  So there's no surprise who wins, but that's the nature of the sport."

Ayrton Senna raced for several driving teams including McLaren and Williams-Renault.  He had the legendary Frank Williams, the founder of the Williams Formula One racing team, at his side.  Mr. Senna also had Dr. Sid Watkins as his doctor, friend and counsel.  In "Senna" Mr. Watkins is portrayed as a guiding light, the gentle grandfather, an Obi-Wan Kenobi or Yoda providing wisdom and contemplation to a man who literally lived life in the fast lane.

Mr. Senna however, never truly got to grips with the politics of Formula One racing.  The politics off the racetrack were apparently what he despised, even as he was often accused of dirty tactics in the heat of competition on it.  

"Within the sport there's a very thick rule book but every team will do whatever they can to break the rules.  Until they get caught.  And then if they get caught either the rules change, they incorporate what they've been doing, or they get 'done' (punished)," said Mr. Kapadia.  "You've got to be clever and political to get a car to drive in Formula One.  There's only 20 drivers that are going to do it a year.  How many people play basketball?  How many people play football?"

As if to underscore his point, the filmmaker adds, "You've got to know how to play the system."

The sign on the window of the Embarcadero Center Cinema on the film's opening night last Friday in San Francisco.
The film has performed well in numerous countries, and continues to do well in the U.S. 
Omar P.L. Moore

Referring to professional athletes who often thank a higher power after winning a sports contest, Mr. Kapadia, who came from a religious background, "[doesn't] have any problem with it."  (Mr. Kapadia then expresses misgivings about those who appear to grandstand when praising their god, "when they have ten children all over the place, or whatever.")

Recalling and quoting the words of a Los Angeles-based film critic and nun he spoke to recently, Mr. Kapadia said, "'[Senna]'s a true Christian, because actually he's complex.'"

Ayrton Senna was routinely attacked for his strong devotion to his Catholic faith, and the sports media scrutinized him for it.  The intense criticism was so overwhelming that Mr. Senna stopped defending himself in English and spoke in Portuguese and other languages when eloquently arguing and defending himself.  "He was definitely sincere about his faith," Mr. Kapadia noted.

"Just because you believe in God doesn't mean that you're whiter than white, you've never done a bad thing in life.  What's interesting about [Ayrton Senna] is there's a lot of stuff going on there where he's almost being tested.  And you know he had his ideals.  And he stuck by his ideals.  And if he thought he'd been done wrong he felt, 'okay I'm gonna get it my way this time.'  That doesn't stop him being a man of faith.

"And that's what I think is interesting about him is it's complicated.  And that's why you can make a movie about him, I suppose."

"Senna" is now playing in theaters in select cities in the U.S. and expanding its release to additional cities on a weekly basis.

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