Russell Baillie writes about movies for the Herald

Senna: Vroom with a view

The film Senna captures the life and death of the Brazilian champion driver in a hit documentary that is the big screen white-knuckle ride of the year.

Ayrton Senna. Photo / Supplied
Ayrton Senna. Photo / Supplied

Talk about being in the driving seat. There's a moment in Senna when you realise: This is it.

This is the lap of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix which is the last for the 34-year-old Brazilian world champion.

And here we are peering over his shoulder - via his car's racecam footage - at the man's final moments.

It's hard to watch but like the rest of the race footage showing Ayrton Senna's decade in Formula 1, it's utterly thrilling. Even if you've never watched an F1 lap in your life. It's made all the more so because of how the preceding hours of Senna make the man a living, breathing enigma.

"Yeah it is very powerful," agrees Asif Kapadia, the film's English director when asked if he had any qualms about including the sequence.

"I found that shot quite early on and I thought we would always be using it because it is so powerful. In a way it's got something in there which is unbearable to look at - but it's almost the best lap in the movie. It's like the perfect lap. The best lap he ever did. Because he is not racing anyone, there is no one ahead of him ... it is almost transcendental.

There is something in it, there is a tension in it, you think something is going to happen."

So no, no qualms: "I never doubted it because the only place to be in that moment is in the car with him."

Kapadia would seem an unlikely character to be directing a sports biopic. He's best known - if at all - for slow-paced arthouse films, like The Warrior, his 2001 Hindi-language feature shot in the deserts of Rajasthan, and 2004's Far North, a study in human isolation set against a frozen Arctic wasteland.

"With The Warrior there was a spiritual element to the character and I think they were interested in that because of Senna's faith," he says of the devout Catholic driver he remembers seeing on television during his 80s and 90s heyday.

Kapadia was in the right place at the right time when prominent British film company Working Title, having already negotiated with Senna's family and F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone over access to the sport's vast library of race and behind-the-scenes footage, went looking for someone to make the movie.

The original idea was delve into the archive for 40 or so minutes of footage, shoot talking heads interviews about those who knew him and there you would have it.

Except, on seeing what lay in among the thousands of hours of film in the archive, Kapadia started to realise he could the change the movie's tense - from past to present.

"I started thinking why do we need interviews? What can I get from an interview that is better than the actual material?"

About the only talking head in the film is the erudite Senna himself taken from interviews he did at the time.

"He's brilliant. He's so honest and let's be frank, he's the best person to talk about what what he is thinking at that particular moment, rather than somebody 20 years later guessing."

Kapadia did shoot interviews, but only incorporated them as audio over the footage, which included plenty of Senna's family home movies as well as Brazilian television coverage of his years of stardom.

The finished result plays out as an epic drama as well as a character study - one which has as its main plot Senna's intense rivalry with sometime team-mate Alain Prost.

The villain of the piece is motorsport boss Jean-Marie Balestre ("Wow, what a character. We could not have made him up") who died in 2008.

But that we get such a vivid picture of the likes of Balestre reinforces Kapadia's decision the film should rely on the power of the thousands of hours of archive footage he and his editor trawled through.

"You would be finding footage and finding material that made you go 'I can't believe there is a camera there, I can't believe someone said that and they were recording it' and they don't seem to be aware there is a camera or are bothered by it.

"And that's what makes the film unique and that is what made me think we should just do the film with the archives."

The film does tread lightly on Senna's personal life. Mainly because, says Kapadia, not much footage exists of figures in Senna's love life which included a short marriage before his F1 days as well as a relationship with a 15-year-old who later briefly became his fiance.

The film also reminds us that Senna's wealthy family background helped him get started in racing but Kapadia says that actually makes him more intriguing - that a man who had everything still went out and risked his life because that was all he wanted to do.

Having seen almost every frame that exists of Senna in his lifetime before whittling it down to feature length ("my first cut was seven hours"), Kapadia says he came away admiring the champ - and liking the man too.

"Because of what he stands for away from the car, because he was always fighting corruption. He was the one who stood up for other drivers. He was the one who was talking about safety.

"He was the one who cared about his country, Brazil, and was giving away so much money. There are so many parts of his character which made him very special and he happened to be amazing at what he did in the car."


What: Senna, documentary of the life of Ayrton Senna, arguably,the greatest Formula 1 champ ever, directed by Asif Kapadia.
When: Opens at cinemas on September 1

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