Documentary featuring archival footage of Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Jackie Stewart, Nigel Mansell, Nelson Piquet, the Senna Family, and many more.
Director: Asif Kapadia
Universal Pictures, Studio Canal, Working Title Films, Mandate Films, and Producers Distribution Agency.
Written by: Manish Pandey.
|“With Senna…there is one small problem…he thinks that he can’t kill himself…” – Alain Prost.
Years back, a friend of mine once talked to me about the joys of having the Speed Channel on his cable system and the unmitigated thrill he would get in waking up at 3 or 4 in the morning to watch live European Formula One car racing. While I could not relate specifically to his exuberance in how much fun he had partaking in this practice, I can certainly draw comparisons to seeing a highly touted new film, or experiencing some other event that I could find pure excitement for. I certainly cannot think of many things that would willingly wake me up at 3 or 4 in the morning, but his excitement was genuinely endearing.
That friend of mine was forefront in my mind when I watched the fantastic documentary Senna, which was wrongfully ignored by the Academy’s Documentary Branch this past year, but won two BAFTA prizes for Best Film Editing and Best Documentary Film for 2011. Masterfully edited and collated by director Asif Kapadia and editors Chris King and Gregers Sall, Senna is a terrific film; one entirely created from archival footage and unseen voiceovers of current and former Formula One racing pundits, experts, and contemporaries. While the audience may seen limited on a film like this, I guarantee that within a few minutes of watching the film, Senna transcends its perceived limited appeal and becomes a riveting, heartbreaking, and fascinating look into the mentality, mindset, and determination behind a man still regarded, almost two decades since his tragic death, as the greatest Formula One race car driver of all time.
And perhaps we should spoil the obvious here. Ayrton Senna lost his life at the age of 34 in a split second on Lap 7 of the May 1994 San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy. On a weekend which saw numerous crashes and one additional fatality involving rookie racer Roland Ratzenberger during qualifying, Senna set out to employ a smart and aggressive strategy which had brought him to the winner’s circle more than any other Formula One driver. On that fateful corner, known as Tamburello Corner, Senna’s vehicle never made the turn and slammed head-first into a retailing wall at approximately 205 mph. Once Senna was extricated out of the car, his personal physician knew that Senna would not survive. Later that afternoon, the death of Ayrton Senna was worldwide news and immediate innovations and overhauling of the safety of Formula One race cars were enacted following the San Marino race. As of 2012, Ayrton Senna remains the last Formula One race car driver to die on the circuit.
Prior to witnessing the crash and the realization that forever captured on video are the final moments of a man heralded as a modern-day hero in his native Brazil, Ayrton Senna is organically realized through Asif Kapadia’s orchestration of archival footage. We see Senna’s earliest races in a go-kart league and his subsequent maneuvering through the ranks and challenges of various levels of competition. Equally as compelling as seeing how Senna laid the foundation for an astounding career, is learning about the man, at least the public image of a man, who spoke confidently but never arrogantly, determined but rarely verbose, and had a constant and bitter rivalry with fellow teammate and eventual nemesis, Alain Prost.
In some of the most interesting clips, Senna is shown using his fame and celebrity to advocate and argue against the governing body, FISA, in pre-match meetings with racers and crew teams and FISA officials. Senna’s attempts, to employ changes and modifications he felt would make the sport better and safer, were acclaimed and appreciated by fellow racers and fans of open-wheel racing. Curiously, when analyzing the footage and gauging the silence or expressions of Senna’s fellow competitors, you cannot help but notice that some colleagues and peers seem a bit exhausted with their sport’s superstar throwing his weight around a little bit.
Be it jealousy or celebrity-fueled exhaustion, no one could deny that Ayrton Senna was a big star in the racing world and became something of a global phenomenon. He had high-profile girlfriends, returned home to a king’s welcoming, and flat out won races. A lot of races. 41 in a 10-year span. A poll in 2009 named Senna as the greatest Formula One driver of all time, even ahead of Prost and another driver, Michael Schumacher, who has won more than double the amount of Senna’s wins in his career. His legacy is cemented into the annals of sporting history and is undeniable.
To have someone not interested or unfamiliar with this type of sporting event, watch a movie about a famous driver who dies in a tragic accident is not an easy sell. And yet, there is an intoxicating draw to how Asif Kapadia shares the story of Ayrton Senna. The novelty of car racing in this country has shifted from open-wheel racing to the loud and enigmatic NASCAR brand and I suppose when watching a film reconstructed from old videotapes and films, it is easy to believe that the world of Ayrton Senna is that of a world that has long since been passed by. Perhaps in the United States that is the case, but Formula One racing remains incredibly popular in Europe and for people like my friend, a compelling and exhilarating watch on television.
Senna captures both an era gone by and that anticipation that my friend feels on those 3 a.m. mornings rather expertly. While it may be somewhat unsatisfying to never be able to put present-day faces with the occasional spiking in of narration, and it becomes a bit hard at times to keep tabs on all those weighing in on the Ayrton Senna story, Senna is still a gem of a discovery, one which deserves a bigger and wider audience.
Should I See It?
As someone who is a sports fan, but not a racing fan, I was hooked.
Asif Kapadia appears to have a pulse on how to both convey Ayrton Senna’s persona, both in front and away from the camera, as well as look beyond the footage and find insight into Senna’s life story. This project and task could not have been easy and yet Senna is so wonderfully realized, that the output seems effortless.
In a strange year for Oscar nominations in the Best Documentary Feature award, Senna should have been a contender. That it won the general field Film Editing prize and Best Documentary award from BAFTA (Britain’s Oscar equivalent) is notable and why the Academy shunned the film is a bit inexplicable.
No matter how engrossing or well made Senna might be, there is a sizable hurdle to cross over to convince a casual movie watcher that this documentary about a legendary Formula One racer, who died on camera and in 1994, is worthy of their time. This is just not going to be a film that has mainstream appeal.