Genius. Maverick. Outsider. Superstar. Legend. These intertitles flash in the trailer of British film-maker Asif Kapadia’s latest documentary Senna-in sync with the varied seasons in the life of the film’s protagonist.
A life that tried to blend spiritual yearning and the deafening roar of Formula One cars into a harmonious symphony, and perished in the attempt. The mosaic of grainy images shifting from racetracks to podiums leads to the title: Senna.
Brazilian F1 legend Ayrton Senna’s talent, his religious piety and his great rivalry with Alain Prost between 1984 (the year he first stepped into a F1 car in his home Grand Prix) and the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix where he died, aged 34, in a crash that shook the Formula 1 fraternity, make up the film.
Pit stops: Senna celebrating after winning the Belgian Grand Prix in 1991.Photo Photograph by Pascal Rondeau/Allsport/Getty Images
His wonder years with McLaren (now Vodafone McLaren Mercedes), which saw him bag three Formula 1 world titles (1988, 1990, 1991), his intrepid approach to driving (which he liked to call “pure driving, real racing”), and his many famous encounters with drivers such as Michael Schumacher are featured. The interviews with his family offer a sensitive perspective to Senna’s personality, which became the stuff of sporting legend, so much so that Brazil’s 1994 football World Cup winning team dedicated their triumph to him. His funeral had the highest number of mourners in Brazilian history.
“Frankly, I wasn’t an F1 enthusiast when I decided to take over,” says Kapadia over the phone from London. “But when I met Manish (the writer) I was infected by his great passion for Ayrton Senna.”
It was this passion which he saw in Manish Pandey that led producer James Gay Rees of Midfield Films to support the Senna project. Pandey, a Shimla-born screenwriter based in London and a huge Senna admirer, had decided early on that he wouldn’t reduce Senna’s life to the days surrounding the Imola race in 1994 when he died. To accomplish this, in March 2006 he flew to Brazil to meet Senna’s family, which had till then turned down all requests to make a documentary on the F1 driver’s life. But they were moved by Pandey’s 40-minute presentation. As Pandey says, Viviane Senna, Ayrton’s sister, hugged him after the presentation, whispering into his ear, “You really knew my brother.”
The documentary has had the full support of Formula 1 head honcho Bernie Ecclestone, who granted them unprecedented access to the F1 archives. Researching for the 104-minute film was a five-year process. “We sent teams to different parts of the world in addition to culling footage from archives and institutes. Some of the footage we have used is from YouTube. That’s the range of the film,” says Kapadia.
A 1989 picture and the film poster.Photo Photograph by Pascal Rondeau/Allsport/Getty Images
Film-maker Stanley Kubrick deemed editing “the only aspect of the cinematic art that is unique”. Kapadia and co. seem to have clung to this maxim, for the film is really a smorgasbord of video footage of Senna pieced together painstakingly without voiceovers. The film disposes of talking heads; the interviewees’ voices take the images forward without their faces ever making an appearance.
“No photographs, no narration-just cinema; pure cinema,” says Kapadia, borrowing words that his subject often used. The film’s Brazilian soul comes from the music of Antonio Pinto, of Central Station and City of God fame.
Senna is more narrative, less documentary. His exploits on the track blaze through the screen; his courage behind the steering wheel and his many initiatives to make Formula 1 safer for his fellow competitors crown his unique personality.
Senna has garnered many awards since its release in Japan in late 2010, the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival among them. As Kapadia points out, Senna won this award in a country (US) where no one really watches Formula 1.
As the film segues into its final act, with Senna crashing into the Tamburello corner at Imola, one is reminded of the epitaph of the devout racer’s grave in Sao Paulo which, translated, reads: “Nothing can separate me from the love of God.”
1 May is Ayrton Senna’s 17th death anniversary. Senna is slated to release in India around October.