by Alexandra Marie Daniels
So often when people we love pass away too soon, we just want to hear their voices and see their smiles one more time. For Formula One fans and the many people who adored Ayrton Senna, the documentary film Senna is a gift - a gift in the form of an adrenaline-spiking, while tears-may-fall-compelling, drama.
Arriving in U.S. theaters August 12, 2011, the film has already achieved success abroad as well as the 2011 Sundance Film Festival World Cinema Audience Award for Documentary Film and the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival Audience Award for Best International Feature. Senna is a must-see film for anyone who likes sports, appreciates a good story, and has an interest in spirituality and art.
The director, British filmmaker Asif Kapadia (The Warrior, Far North) was not previously an F1 enthusiast himself and was able to illustrate Senna’s genius in such a dramatic yet unassuming manner that someone who had never heard of Senna can identify with the character of the story while not having any familiarity with racing. In fact, for the viewer, not knowing the story makes this film that much more compelling.In a traditional, cinematic, three-act story structure we meet Senna. In his own words we follow him through the ten years from 1984 to 1994 that he raced for Formula One. We witness his staggering genius as he rises to the top and the deep spiritual connection he maintains while racing. We feel his frustration with the highly politicized nature of the sport and experience the challenges he faces along the way. And, as in every good drama, we also meet his opposing force and rival, French driver Alain Prost - as pragmatic as Senna is spiritual and a genius in his own right.
As stated in the film, it was “pure driving, real racing” that made Ayrton Senna happy. Racing is what “brought [Senna] closest to God.” He was a man of devotion to racing and in the words of Formula One doctor Professor Sid Watkins, “he had a wonderful humility that is not common among racing drivers.”
While the politics of the sport did not agree with him, it was by virtue of his talent that Senna made it to the top. As illustrated in the movie, Senna spoke out about the safety of the sport and had deep compassion for the safety of all drivers. He fought the system to increase standards. Not surprisingly, it is because of his accident that F1 safety standards have changed and there have been no fatalities since his death.
Senna had an electrifying energy and throughout his career had multiple cameras filming him all the time. His dynamic, superstar character, combined with unprecedented access to gripping footage of F1 races, gave the director good reason to keep the film on the action and on Senna. Despite the contributions of key F1 players, the film never cuts to talking-head interviews so commonly found in documentaries.
This is not a film about Ayrton Senna; it is Ayrton Senna in action. With thousands of hours of footage at their disposal, Kapadia explains in an interview how it was possible to stylistically make these choices. “By Imola at the end of the movie Senna has pretty much got 40 cameras on him everywhere he goes, so it became like cutting a drama. We could literally have a mid shot, a reverse, a two-shot profile and a high-angled helicopter shot if we wanted.”
One of the producers, Eric Fellner, describes the editing opportunities their abundance of footage provided. “It is amazing,” Fellner explains of the garage scene at Imola. “He is being shot from multiple angles and we were actually able, in real time, to cut from one angle to another. There are very few documentaries where you ever find that kind of coverage, which allows the viewer to feel like they are watching a film because the events are unfolding in a filmic way.”Senna was a dream project for writer Manish Pandey and producer James Gay-Rees who are both avid Formula One and Ayrton Senna fans. In March 2006, Ayrton Senna’s family granted them permission to make a film about their son, focusing on his genius, his spirituality, and his extraordinary life. Senna is the first documentary to be produced by Working Title Films.
As Ayrton Senna raced to the top of his game, Brazil was entrenched in the growing pains of a nascent democracy and desperately needed a hero. Although his story is far from a rag to riches tale, Senna became the people’s hero. The people of Brazil loved Senna and he loved them.
Through the use of family footage combined with footage from Brazilian Television archives, the film acknowledges Senna’s love and compassion for his homeland where he attained mythical status. With every F1 win, he waved the Brazilian flag.
One of the most heart-warming moments in the film is in 1991 when he wins The Brazilian Grand Prix and lifts the spirits of an entire country. As a Brazilian in the film states, “at least we have Senna.”
Not only was Senna proud to be from Brazil but also Senna gave back to his country. He chose to focus his aid on children. In 1995, his sister Viviane Senna established the Instituto Aryton Senna. Since that time the organization has educated over 12 million underprivileged Brazilian children.
About the Author:
Alexandra Marie Daniels is a writer, dancer, and filmmaker. She has made three films with the director Bernard Rose, including The Kreutzer Sonata (2008) and Mr. Nice (2010) and has worked with the director Martyn Atkins as a script supervisor on concerts such as Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood: Live from Madison Square Garden and The Crossroads Guitar Festival 2010. Alexandra is The WIP's Arts, Culture, and Media Editor.