Formula 1 arrived in Abu Dhabi two years ago with considerable fanfare and the popular enthusiasm has, if anything, grown since then. As with all sports, even one often criticised for being about the cars rather than the drivers, it’s the human element that is often the most fascinating and it would be hard to find a character in any sport who made as big an impression as Ayrton Senna.
The late Brazilian champion driver is the subject of Senna, a documentary from the British director Asif Kapadia, which will be showing tomorrow night on the Abu Dhabi Corniche as part of Yasalam’s Cinema by the Sea programme. It did not take Kapadia long to say yes to the producer James Gay-Rees, the Working Title production company executive Eric Fellner and the writer Manish Pandey when they asked him to take the helm. The director recalls: “They started to contact the family and Bernie Ecclestone to get the people they needed to make it happen. They then spoke to every other director that you would go to, to make a documentary on Senna, and thank God for whatever reason they couldn’t do it, or it didn’t happen, and eventually they thought, ‘What about Asif?’ ”
However, Kapadia admits that he was no expert on racing. “I would never really say I was an authority on F1 or Senna. I never read a book, never looked at a website, never really studied his personal life or anything like that, all of that was new to me; that is why I was interested, because I knew he was famous and I knew how big he was in Brazil, or I thought I knew, I hadn’t actually seen that much footage, so for me there was a big learning curve that made it more interesting to do the film. If I am going to spend four or five years on a movie, then I like it when I’m going to learn something along the way.”
The director turned his lack of knowledge into an advantage. While Pandey would be an expert on Senna and motor racing, Kapadia tried to be the eyes and ears of the public at large. He pointed out that the public wouldn’t care about the points system, and that they wanted to know more about Senna the man, rather than the F1 driver.
In the film, there is nothing about Senna’s career in go-karting, nor what went on before Formula 1. Instead, Senna is chatting about his own life, his love of racing and his battles with rivals.
Two key topics emerge: Senna’s love for Brazil and his faith in God. “We could easily have done a whole film about his relationship with Brazil, ending with his victory at the Brazilian Grand Prix in 1991 and what that win meant for his country in the context of the dictatorship and the fact that the football team were no good at the time. He was the one person proud of being Brazilian and making people proud.”
As for the driver’s Roman Catholicism: “His spirituality was a key part of him and that’s what made him different, the fact that he could talk about it in a very eloquent way,” explains the director. “Maybe this is more pertinent to me because I come from an Indian background where there is no problem talking about God. What was interesting is that we looked at thousands of hours of material and we look at a post-race press conference and when he’s talking English it’s pretty bland. Most of them [where] he talks about God are in Portuguese, he would say something totally different to his home crowd from what he said to the English-speaking people and we like that. He is talking to his own people in a way that is more honest.”
It took three years of editing to put the documentary together, with researchers in Japan, Italy, Sao Paulo – all over the world – sending in original archive footage, so that Kapadia could tell the story in real time, as if it were happening right now: “It’s quite early on in the process that I thought there was a way to make the film that was just to use the original archive, and to stay in the present. Because as soon as you jump to an interview in the present day, you see them older and everything dates, everything looks archive. Whereas if you just stay with it, you think of it as in the present, telling the story.
“My job was to make it a movie and not a TV documentary. The idea was just to let Senna tell his own life story through the footage. We won’t have some famous person coming and telling you the story ... We felt quite early on that we had something quite powerful and emotional, but also original. I can’t think of a time before when a documentary has been told almost entirely like a fiction film.”
Working on the film fired up Kapadia’s interest in F1, but it wasn’t the racing that really struck him. He was gripped by the back-room wheeling and dealing; the politics behind the sport.
“Formula 1 is money and politics and it still rings true,” says Kapadia. “The reason why Formula 1 is interesting is that once you understand what is going on behind the scenes, it’s never going to be fair, it’s never meant to be fair, it’s all about inequality. The best driver will always be in the best car and they will always have much more money than anyone else. Once you understand what is going on behind the scenes, I think it’s almost as interesting as the race.”
Kapadia’s hope is that Senna will still be of interest to a viewer who doesn’t care for the sport and has no interest in Formula 1. “That was what was important for me – the film has to work for people who … have never seen a race in their life. It’s got to work for them, not just the hard-core fans.”
And feedback has shown that it does: “What’s interesting is, when we show the film around the world, the hard-core fans say, ‘That’s what it was like, that’s what we love about the sport.’ The non-fans thought we were being hard on the sport, showing how corrupt it is and how political it is. But that’s what people love. So it’s quite funny that some people will say, ‘How did you get away with it?’ while the fans will say, ‘Ah, those were the golden years.’ ”
Senna has broken box-office records in the UK, become a hit around the world and proved to be an audience favourite at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, which wrapped up earlier this week. Kapadia, it seems, is in driving position.
Additional reporting by Alex Ritman
Senna is showing tomorrow on Al Sahil Beach on the Abu Dhabi Corniche, as part of Yasalam’s open-air Cinema by the Sea. It screens at 10pm and is rated PG13; entrance is free
Follow us on Twitter and keep up to date with the latest in arts and lifestyle news at twitter.com/LifeNationalUAE