A man walks into a conference room where a Formula One pre-race meeting is about to begin. The camera loves the man’s face, even though it is tired, conflicted, frustrated. The room is full of people, but the camera is only marginally interested in them: it follows the man from the door to his seat. The meeting begins; a driver passionately criticizes a race regulation, but he is not about to get much screen time. The camera registers his face, but as he continues to speak, we are already back to watching Ayrton Senna getting progressively more frustrated with the discussion. The camera then follows Senna to the door as he walks out of the meeting, pausing to say some bitter words on the way. Senna gestures and points, but instead of jerking instinctively in the direction of the movement, the camera remains firmly focused on him. When he turns away to head out of the door, the camera wobbles, unsure what to do now that it cannot see Senna’s face. It is a documentary camera, but it is not a dispassionate observer.
This is Asif Kapadia’s wonderfully scopophilic and expertly crafted patchwork of archival footage, billed as the first feature-length documentary about the “greatest racing driver of all time” (if you ask Michael Schumacher), Brazilian sporting icon Ayrton Senna (1960-94). If you were unsure of just how mythic the figure was, the film will eagerly provide you with a telling episode: during the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix, Senna’s gearbox fails. “It seems impossible to drive a Formula One car stuck in sixth gear,” the off-screen commenter muses, “but [Senna] had tried so many times to win the Brazilian Grand Prix, so he found a special force within himself.” “Magic” was, fittingly, one of Senna’s nicknames. Outside motorsport and outside Brazil, where he is nothing less than a national hero, Senna is probably best known for being the last Formula One fatality to date. Yet, Kapadia’s film is not about Senna’s death, although, in a strange way, it is about (Senna’s) death – and about the ability of the documentary image to transcend it.
Senna’s admittedly charismatic personality and his classic narrative arc of a life story – from his (not-so-humble) beginnings in Brazil to his stellar career in Formula One, to his fatal accident at the Imola circuit in 1994 – are a filmmaker’s dream (in the early 2000s, there were rumors of a biopic starring Antonio Banderas). In a way, a biopic is exactly what Kapadia made (Senna being his first foray into documentary filmmaking), with Senna himself starring (there is – almost – no new footage in the film). For the opening credits, grainy close-ups of Senna’s face, in muted pastels of old home videos, are inter-cut with what pretends to be an in-car video, but is in fact a series of sharp, contemporary, black-and-white point-of-view shots. This move almost imperceptibly shifts the conditions of spectatorship: the power of this insistent, if obviously staged, formal suture subtly compels us to watch Senna’s story arc unfold as if it were a classic fiction narrative.
The film is a sports documentary, however, in that it does document Senna’s ten years in the cockpit of a Formula One car, making use of amazing (some of it previously unseen) original footage, from in-car videos to behind-the-scenes clips from Formula One Management’s archives. Then there are racing sequences, pit footage, interviews, several truly heroic moments and obligatory champagne battles; these are complemented by home videos that (vaguely) outline Senna’s private life, and some clips from Senna’s TV appearances that are outright hilarious (“Ayrton, has any of your girls ever asked you to go faster?”). From these Senna gradually emerges as kind yet intense, deeply religious yet ruthless, serious yet likeable – in short, fascinating. All of this would already make a good sports documentary; yet, it seems that Senna’s racing career, and even his famous on- and off-track rivalry with the French great, Alain Prost, are for the film but plot vehicles, albeit very effective ones.
Kapadia edits archival footage in such a way that Senna’s face never leaves the frame for long. There are other faces, of course, most notably – those of the villains in Senna’s story. Yet, the film is distinctly obsessed with Senna’s (marvelously expressive) face. This may look like a fanboy’s crush (and it is – the screenwriter, Manish Pandey, is a self-confessed Senna fan), until we get to the part of the film dealing with Senna’s death.
Where documentaries tend to be at their most scopophilic, this one is not. There is no replay: Senna’s accident is neither disturbingly prolonged by slow motion nor multiplied by different camera angles; in fact, it looks almost serene, and the whole episode is mercifully brief. And then it turns out that the “special force” in the film lies not only with Senna the admittedly fascinating human being, but also with (documentary?) filmmaking. Almost immediately, Senna’s face is back on screen, cutting through the footage of his funeral. As the credits begin to roll, we get even more Senna, mostly smiling at the camera. The effect is cathartic: Senna’s face becomes a comforting and bruising presence, simultaneously marking and covering over the loss of the man – the documentary image, after all, is a paradoxical site that proclaims a presence but signifies an absence. In this interplay, Senna the film finds a “special force” of its own: even as it keeps returning to the image to mourn the passing of the man, within the film’s own cinematic space, Senna is safe and intensely present.
Daria Kabanova is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Russian at Kenyon College.
Director Asif Kapadia
Screenwriter Manish Pandey
Producers James Gay Rees, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner
With Ayrton Senna (himself, archival footage), Alain Prost, Frank Williams, Ron Dennis, Viviane Senna, Milton Da Silva
Runtime 106 minutes