Directed by: Asif Kapadia
Written by:Manish Pandey
Released: August 11, 2011
Grade: A

If you’d taken this story and turned into a re-enacted drama… most people wouldn’t have believed it.  That was certainly the option of director Asif Kapadia.  He could have cast a big name actor and created a Hollywood-style adaptation but it wouldn’t have had the same impact.  Audiences would have been sceptical and left the cinema thinking “as if that really happened”.  So instead, Kapadia and the film’s producers thought it best to tell the story by way of a documentary.  That way, no one could ever accuse the film of being unrealistic.

You don’t have to be a sports lover to appreciate this great film.  Yes, there are scenes involving Formula One but it’s just as much about Ayrton Senna as a person and the hurdles he had to overcome.  A simple internet search would tell those unfamiliar that Senna was a phenomenal driver who won the Formula One World Drivers’ Championship on three occasions.  His life was tragically cut short when he was killed in a crash during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

Kapadia’s documentary goes beyond what you might expect and provides a very intimate account of Senna and his motivations.  The film’s producers helped negotiate a deal with Formula One rights holder Bernie Ecclestone to access his media archive and show this never-before-seen footage.  Kapadia and his team sifted through roughly 15,000 hours of video tape and painstakingly trimmed it into this 100 minute feature film.

Some of the film’s best scenes come from the driver’s meetings that were held before each race.  All the drivers are seated in a small room as the race officials and FIA President Jean-Marie Balestre lay down the ground rules.  You can see the tension between Senna and Balestre and it is no surprise that this footage hasn’t seen the light of day.  It illustrates the suffering that Senna endured because of his refusal to “play politics”.

Senna’s career was defined by his rivalry with French driver Alain Prost.  It’s fascinating to watch these two in action and the way their relationship changed over time.  They started out as teammates but that quickly changed as each tried to outshine the other.  You can tell they didn’t like each other but it seemed this hatred made them better drivers – it fuelled their passion and determination.

What I found most curious about this documentary’s style is that there is no narration track, no re-enactments and no modern day footage.  Kapadia wanted to avoid “talking head” interviews and make something that feels more like a drama than a documentary.  It was the right move by Kapadia.  The pictures tell the story and your eyes will be glued to the screen for the entire duration.

Before finalising any “best of” list for 2011, I’d strongly suggest you see this film.

You can read my interview with director Asif Kapadia by clicking here.