Viciously raw yet eloquently constructed, Senna transcends the line between documentary and narrative cinema. With a surplus of archival footage, Asif Kapadia creates a film that unfolds and cuts like a piece of narrative fiction, while preserving an emotional resonance that can only result from real events. Let us not forget, flying down the racetrack at 200 miles-per-hour around hairpin turns, that death, to be blunt, is death. But to describe Senna as thrilling (a first person camera on board a race car is nothing less) would not suffice. For Kapadia paints a portrait of not just Ayrton Senna the Formula 1 world champion driver, but of Ayrton Senna the man.
In the late 80’s and early 90’s, fast driving was synonymous Ayrton Senna. The Brazilian not only claimed three F1 world championships, but to this day, is recognized as one of the greatest drivers of all time. However, Kapadia’s film captures the story you won’t find on Wikipedia. That is, a man struggling between his transcendent connection to the racetrack, and the highly politicized injustices that surround it.
Perhaps this unique driver can be best understood in a single instance: speaking out against F1 regulations despite having just won the world championship. Kapadia juxtaposes the exhilarating ride of Senna’s races with the driver’s dramatic conflicts off the track, both with rival Alain Prost and with the International Automobile Federation (FIA). In one scene, a dynamic in-car camera captures Senna screaming in ecstasy as he zips across the finish line in his home country. In another scene, a close up examines the nuances of Senna’s expression while in a heated debate with the head of the FIA. The result, simultaneously adrenaline-pumping and heart- wrenching, conveys precisely Senna’s experience—caught between the weightless freedom of driving and the regulations that ground him.
Kapadia’s reliance on film form to capture this balance, between the genius of the track and the humanity of the man, could not be realized without the filmmaker’s access to over 15000 hours of footage. The resulting aesthetic is a colorful mosaic of 35mm footage, digital home video from Senna’s family, and everything in between. Even more impressive is Kapadia’s commitment to this footage, refusing to cut away to the more traditional “talking head interviews,” in favor of letting his visuals do the work. It is through this delicate construction of history that Kapadia instills past events with the immediacy of the present, as if the story is unfolding before our eyes from the perspective of the one man who is not there to tell the tale.
Kapadia was thus able to deal with the difficult task faced by many documentarians: to tell a story when the audience knows the ending. Through his careful manipulation of time, in particular slowing the progression of history in the last section of the film, Kapadia is able to draw out dramatic tension for even the most knowing of F1 fans. In fact, in this case, the filmmaker is faced with the challenge of entertaining two audiences. One audience who knows the story, and the other (mostly American) audience that only associates race car driving with NASCAR’s Jeff
Gordon or Dale Earnhardt. Often cutting, within a single moment, from a wide shot to a pinning closeup of Senna, it is no secret that this filmmaker’s intentions are more emotional than expositional—centered on examining a character rather than just relishing his titles. More notably, this analytical cutting pattern makes one feel as if he is watching an engaging peace of fiction, while its grainy, hand held canvas is a constant reminder that the people and events of this drama are in fact real. The result is something in between, and a new, exhilarating experience for the filmgoer.
Innovation in film history is often marked by a timely synergy between technological growth and creative minds. In fact, it is not just storytellers who find ways to integrate technology, but often the technology itself that gives birth to an artist’s vision. Asif Kapadia’s documentary Senna is no exception to this time-tested harmony. Indeed this film is not the result of large budget visual effects, as when Lucas encountered the optical printer, but instead a steady accumulation of video and camera development that has occurred over the past several decades. For the rise of video and digital technology has not just altered the medium’s aesthetic, it has most simply enlarged the visual archive of mankind.
Senna shows what happens when a brilliant storyteller comes across an immense body of footage, and gains unlimited access to the world’s most fruitful database: YouTube. It is no wonder that this is both Kapadia’s and Working Title’s first documentary, for the product cannot easily be labeled as such. Neither insincerely uplifting nor staggeringly depressing, Senna is a colorful medley of stock and digital footage that captures not just a champion’s rise to the top, but his struggles with Formula 1, his rivals, and himself along the way. As we continue to build this visual diary of mankind’s dwellings, one can only wonder the trajectory of documentaries and films that will follow.