Senna

13/05/2024

 It is no surprise to find Kevin MacDonald taking an executive producer credit on Senna. The director of One Day in September and Touching the Void, MacDonald was always someone who wanted to take documentary out of the epistemologically staid and insist on the dramatically vital. Director and found-footage documentary specialist Asif (AmyDiego Maradona) Kapadia holds to the tension that the motor-car racing subject allows but finds a form that respects documentary’s truth-seeking aspect. Kapadia uses only archival footage - there are no dramatic reenactments (as we find in Touching the Void), no talking heads (as in One Day in September). Though few watching the film will be unaware that this is about a driver who died young and on the track, perhaps more than most documentaries that contain both suspense in the action and predictability of outcome (unlike a fiction film based on purely fictional characters), it holds us in the present rather than reflecting upon the past. If Kapadia relied on talking heads discussing the events with doleful realisations, the film wouldn’t have been moving towards its tragic conclusion. It would be moving away from it as everything would be centred on the crash that killed the 34yr-old Ayrton Senna. 

   Interestingly, for years people wanted to make a film about Senna but his family resisted, and Kapadia says it was because directors like Ridley Scott, Michael Mann and others wanted to focus on the last days. “The main thing was they all wanted to make a film about his final weekend at Imola in 1994.” (Guardian) The family didn't want that and weren’t so keen on a fictional account, one that might have starred Antonio Banderas. “They preferred what we wanted to do, which was a three-act drama celebrating his life, from archive footage.” (Guardian) We needn’t assume the film is any less manipulative than other documentaries — or less so than a fictional film, which has always been able to claim poetic licence. It is manipulative in a particular way: relying on fifteen thousand hours of footage to shape it into a feature doc. The film has a scriptwriter, Mannish Panday, and this might seem odd in a work with only archival material, and with no voice-over or reenactments. However, it might take more than a director and an editor to give shape to so much material, and this is where the manipulation becomes evident. 

    Though the 90s would have been viewed as a great era for motor-racing, with Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell and Alan Prost, the film downplays the importance of others to concentrate on the understandable rivalry between the two most significant racers of the moment, Prost and Senna, generating a hero and a villain. So much so, that when Prost saw the film he took umbrage, and continued to do so for years afterwards, saying: “I have to say that I think the film is a fake…Ayrton called me at least once or twice a week, sometimes just like that, sometimes he wanted advice from me. That was in the last six months before the Imola tragedy. We became friends and close.” (Speedweek.comHe has a point but the film would have a weaker one if it diluted its dramatic content and played up its retrospective dimension, an issue addressed by Tim Bouwhuis: “do we, as viewers, desire the cut that stands out as an artwork or the cut that pertains to a more ‘objective’ perspective of the rivalry between the racers?” (‘Framing Rivalry: The Representation of Alain Prost in Senna’) Whether documentary should be offering excitement and suspense to the detriment of potential truths is open to debate and has been much discussed, with a fine article on Hoop Dreams by Paul Arthur an important analysis. As Arthur says: “a commitment to dramatic development and unanticipated outcomes is manifest at practically every level. This is not a film in the cinéma-vérité tradition of micro-behaviour...but rather a sports movie in the 'grand' Hollywood tradition.” (Cineaste)

   However, though Kapadia isn't as fair to Prost as the Frenchman would wish, the film doesn't only show footage at the end with Prost as one of the pallbearers at Senna’s funeral. Kapadia does more than that: he shows Prost at the event before cutting to him on the podium years earlier as Senna embraces him, and then cuts back to the funeral with Prost in a side elevation shot crossing himself. The footage of Prost was out there but that didn’t mean Kapadia needed to use it, and certainly was under no obligation to offer the close-up nor the intercut from a moment where they embraced. If Prost is the villain, Kapadia suggests he was an ambivalent one. The director admitted, “when I was editing I was thinking of them as dramatic figures rather than people. Then I stopped.” He knew they were also real people and we are reminded of a remark by the great French critic Serge Daney: “Cinema is not about quality, it’s about morality, it’s about ethics.” (MomaKapadia would perhaps dispute Daney’s certitude but he might agree that, without the ethical dimension, he would be treating people with real lives as characters ripe for dramatic purpose, no matter the reality beyond the filmic representation. 

     Such tensions are there when a film bases itself fictionally on a real person in a biopic and especially so if in the recent past or the present - with many involved still alive; maybe one reason why Senna’s family were reluctant to allow Mann, Scott and others to make a film about Senna's life and more especially his death. It is a naive viewer, though, who thinks that a documentary filmmaker respects the subject; they just potentially ‘disrespect’ the subject in a different way. Senna’s footage-shot-to footage-used ratio is extreme (15,000 hours for a 100-minute film), but non-documentary cinema usually works with a much higher ratio than fiction films: “In film and television, the amount of material filmed as rushes compared to the amount which ends up in the finished presentation" is "typically 5:1 for dramas and 20:1 for documentaries, although these figures can vary considerably.” (Oxford Reference

       Part of this much higher ratio in documentary rests on a fidelity to what is available to the camera over what is created for it. The fiction filmmaker wants a scene of two people arguing and they get the actors to perform it. A documentarist may have to shoot loads of footage of their subjects in numerous situations and find amongst them the ones useful to their narrative purpose. In Kapadia’s case, he would have had to sit through many hours of archival film finding the moments he wanted to use all the better to play up the protagonist/antagonist throughline he was seeking. Yet he also needed footage that would hint at Prost not merely being the villain of the piece and thus we have funeral material intercut with Senna and Prost affectionate with each other on the podium. Maybe that moment wasn’t so convivial, but when cut between two shots of Prost at the funeral it can seem much more so. 

    This is what we mean by the documentarist manipulating material. Both events are actual but they needn’t be juxtaposed. Equally, when Kapadia cuts from the father at the funeral to the father affectionate with his son years earlier, or from an ex-girlfriend by the coffin to a moment when this TV presenter and Senna kissed on live television, before cutting back to her again, the film plays with time all the better to generate an affect in space. The film isn’t content to move us with the funeral; it wants with juxtaposition to produce the lachrymose. This is underscored by the music: Antonio Pinto’s non-diegetic score over the pieces that would have been played during the ceremony. 

    The term, documentary has been credited to John Grierson, a Scot with a gift for publicity who was behind Night Mail and Housing Problems  He saw documentary as the creative treatment of actuality. Robert Greene quotes Grierson and later adds, “there isemphatically, no boundary between fiction and documentary, but truth matters more than ever. This, of course, is the great paradox of documentary: authenticity must be manufactured and reality must guide our fabrications.” (Sight and Sound) If documentary started out with a high degree of pragmatism that Greene sees has returned to the form, including in his excellent Kate Plays Christine, it was often most rigorously respectful to reality in the sixties and seventies under the auspices of Direct Cinema. These were observational documentaries based on minimum intervention: no voice-over, no direct-to-camera interviews; often recording many hours of footage that the filmmaker would then sift through to find the story. Its most austere practitioner Frederick Wiseman (WelfareMeatHigh Schoolstill holds to the same principles: “[My] Shooting ratio [is] roughly 60/1. During the shooting, I just collect sequences. I don’t have any theme or point of view toward the material; the only assumption that I make is that if I hang around long enough, I’ll collect enough material out of which I can cut a film. I discover the themes in the editing process, when I come back from the shoot.” (PureMovies.com

   Claims that the boundary between factual and fictional films has dissolved risk losing important distinctions and leads to an inverse naivety. If the viewer misses the manipulation, seeing a true story they don't question, then at the other end the viewer misses the distinctions between degrees of reality the filmmakers seek to explore, the type of theme they want to bring out. A film more concerned with the intricacies of Formula 1 politics may have required a greater observational acuity, relying on lengthier takes in the archival footage as it showed us the various players and their motives. But that isn't the film Kapadia has made. In Senna, everyone else is a supporting character to its titular hero, and the film’s purpose is to show a man who has more sympathy for the poor of his country than the rich involved in Formula 1. The film shows no strong friendships and Senna shows little loyalty to those around him. 

      We might find this ok when it comes to joining McLaren and believing that his teammate is more his rival (Prost) but less so when he ditches McLaren for Williams and thus his important and affectionate relationship with Ron Dennis, McLaren’s team leader who the film shows as a supportive figure in Senna’s life. Senna announces to the cameras that it will probably be his last season for McLaren and the film then shows us Dennis and Senna in conversation, with Dennis saying “OK, we will put behind us what happened.” Little is made of Senna’s family wealth in the film but in an interview elsewhere Dennis noted that “I think he probably bought into [his first team] Toleman…I doubt whether he was driving there not having any financial contribution.” (‘Ron Dennis Talks About Senna) We might believe it has told us in this moment too much and too little - that we might wish for more on the intricacies of Formula 1 because it has alluded to an aspect of events that could benefit from more exploration.

 Our point isn’t to insist on the falsity of Kapadia’s film but one can acknowledge that the counterfactual is inevitably much more present in documentary filmmaking than fiction. Yet it can be naive to make too much of what is left out. There are obviously scenes dropped from fiction films all the time and stars who exit a project either through choice or obligation. In the Mood for Love, there was a lovemaking scene the director edited out of the final cut, and Robert De Niro ended up in the gangster role in The Untouchables that Bob Hoskins was paid to do if De Niro didn’t wish to take the part. But fiction films don’t usually (unless a biopic) have the entire life of someone to access when making a film. If the documentary ratio to shooting is far higher than in fiction films, there is also the ratio of life lived to life used in a documentary telling. Wonderful film characters like Michael Corleone, George Bailey and Scarlett O’Hara don’t have a broader reality that we can compare with what makes it on the screen. (Though fiction films taken from novels do have a counterfactual dimension.) When watching a documentary account of a given subject, we can, but that doesn't mean we ought to nit-pick about what is absent from the film. What is important is seeing that what has been chosen is in its way as deliberate as in a fiction work. The viewer might wish to then understand the type of documentary the film happens to be based on the specifics offered in the context of a much broader life. 

   In Senna, the film shows a young man with a punningly strong drive who is both scapegoat (within Formula 1) and a Christ-like figure in Brazil. He has in Prost a rival who undermines him and proposes that Senna’s religious beliefs make him feel he is immortal and consequently a danger to himself and other drivers. He dies in a crash not because he is reckless but because the car is inadequate and while nobody would claim his death was a murder, nevertheless the film suggests laxness on the part of Williams — a lengthy court case followed Senna’s death. The film proposes Formula 1 made him a hero and turned him into a martyr, with 3 million attending his funeral: the same number of attendees who paid their respects to Eva Peron. Kapadia manages to ignore many of the complexities of the sport for the drama to be found in it, and emphasises the dangers and the individualism over the mundanity and the teamwork. It might seem inevitably exciting a sport that has men racing each other in cars going 220 mph, but anyone who has watched motor racing without a love for the sport, or the intricacies of a car’s performance, might just have heard an endless droning sound. Senna manages to take found footage and find in it an excitement it might not have always originally possessed, making a film that paradoxically has more adrenaline to it than many a Formula 1 race. That takes a filmmaker making numerous choices, even if all of those choices could be found in various archives. This makes for a film that is authentic and manipulative; which needn't be cause for alarm. It simply necessitates pause for thought. 

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Senna

It is no surprise to find Kevin MacDonald taking an executive producer credit on Senna. The director of One Day in September and Touching the Void, MacDonald was always someone who wanted to take documentary out of the epistemologically staid and insist on the dramatically vital. Director and found-footage documentary specialist Asif (Amy; Diego Maradona) Kapadia holds to the tension that the motor-car racing subject allows but finds a form that respects documentary's truth-seeking aspect. Kapadia uses only archival footage - there are no dramatic reenactments (as we find in Touching the Void), no talking heads (as in One Day in September). Though few watching the film will be unaware that this is about a driver who died young and on the track, perhaps more than most documentaries that contain both suspense in the action and predictability of outcome (unlike a fiction film based on purely fictional characters), it holds us in the present rather than reflecting upon the past. If Kapadia relied on talking heads discussing the events with doleful realisations, the film wouldn't have been moving towards its tragic conclusion. It would be moving away from it as everything would be centred on the crash that killed the 34yr-old Ayrton Senna.

Interestingly, for years people wanted to make a film about Senna but his family resisted, and Kapadia says it was because directors like Ridley Scott, Michael Mann and others wanted to focus on the last days. "The main thing was they all wanted to make a film about his final weekend at Imola in 1994." (Guardian) The family didn't want that and weren't so keen on a fictional account, one that might have starred Antonio Banderas. "They preferred what we wanted to do, which was a three-act drama celebrating his life, from archive footage." (Guardian) We needn't assume the film is any less manipulative than other documentaries or less so than a fictional film, which has always been able to claim poetic licence. It is manipulative in a particular way: relying on fifteen thousand hours of footage to shape it into a feature doc. The film has a scriptwriter, Mannish Panday, and this might seem odd in a work with only archival material, and with no voice-over or reenactments. However, it might take more than a director and an editor to give shape to so much material, and this is where the manipulation becomes evident.

Though the 90s would have been viewed as a great era for motor-racing, with Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell and Alan Prost, the film downplays the importance of others to concentrate on the understandable rivalry between the two most significant racers of the moment, Prost and Senna, generating a hero and a villain. So much so, that when Prost saw the film he took umbrage, and continued to do so for years afterwards, saying: "I have to say that I think the film is a fake...Ayrton called me at least once or twice a week, sometimes just like that, sometimes he wanted advice from me. That was in the last six months before the Imola tragedy. We became friends and close." (Speedweek.com) He has a point but the film would have a weaker one if it diluted its dramatic content and played up its retrospective dimension, an issue addressed by Tim Bouwhuis: "do we, as viewers, desire the cut that stands out as an artwork or the cut that pertains to a more 'objective' perspective of the rivalry between the racers?" ('Framing Rivalry: The Representation of Alain Prost in Senna') Whether documentary should be offering excitement and suspense to the detriment of potential truths is open to debate and has been much discussed, with a fine article on Hoop Dreams by Paul Arthur an important analysis. As Arthur says: "a commitment to dramatic development and unanticipated outcomes is manifest at practically every level. This is not a film in the cinma-vrit tradition of micro-behaviour...but rather a sports movie in the 'grand' Hollywood tradition." (Cineaste)

However, though Kapadia isn't as fair to Prost as the Frenchman would wish, the film doesn't only show footage at the end with Prost as one of the pallbearers at Senna's funeral. Kapadia does more than that: he shows Prost at the event before cutting to him on the podium years earlier as Senna embraces him, and then cuts back to the funeral with Prost in a side elevation shot crossing himself. The footage of Prost was out there but that didn't mean Kapadia needed to use it, and certainly was under no obligation to offer the close-up nor the intercut from a moment where they embraced. If Prost is the villain, Kapadia suggests he was an ambivalent one. The director admitted, "when I was editing I was thinking of them as dramatic figures rather than people. Then I stopped." He knew they were also real people and we are reminded of a remark by the great French critic Serge Daney: "Cinema is not about quality, it's about morality, it's about ethics." (Moma) Kapadia would perhaps dispute Daney's certitude but he might agree that, without the ethical dimension, he would be treating people with real lives as characters ripe for dramatic purpose, no matter the reality beyond the filmic representation.

Such tensions are there when a film bases itself fictionally on a real person in a biopic and especially so if in the recent past or the present - with many involved still alive; maybe one reason why Senna's family were reluctant to allow Mann, Scott and others to make a film about Senna's life and more especially his death. It is a naive viewer, though, who thinks that a documentary filmmaker respects the subject; they just potentially 'disrespect' the subject in a different way. Senna's footage-shot-to footage-used ratio is extreme (15,000 hours for a 100-minute film), but non-documentary cinema usually works with a much higher ratio than fiction films: "In film and television, the amount of material filmed as rushes compared to the amount which ends up in the finished presentation is typically 5:1 for dramas and 20:1 for documentaries, although these figures can vary considerably." (Oxford Reference)

Part of this much higher ratio in documentary rests on a fidelity to what is available to the camera over what is created for it. The fiction filmmaker wants a scene of two people arguing and they get the actors to perform it. A documentarist may have to shoot loads of footage of their subjects in numerous situations and find amongst them the ones useful to their narrative purpose. In Kapadia's case, he would have had to sit through many hours of archival film finding the moments he wanted to use all the better to play up the protagonist/antagonist throughline he was seeking. Yet he also needed footage that would hint at Prost not merely being the villain of the piece and thus we have funeral material intercut with Senna and Prost affectionate with each other on the podium. Maybe that moment wasn't so convivial, but when cut between two shots of Prost at the funeral it can seem much more so.

This is what we mean by the documentarist manipulating material. Both events are actual but they needn't be juxtaposed. Equally, when Kapadia cuts from the father at the funeral to the father affectionate with his son years earlier, or from an ex-girlfriend by the coffin to a moment when this TV presenter and Senna kissed on live television, before cutting back to her again, the film plays with time all the better to generate an affect in space. The film isn't content to move us with the funeral; it wants with juxtaposition to produce the lachrymose. This is underscored by the music: Antonio Pinto's non-diegetic score over the pieces that would have been played during the ceremony.

The term, documentary has been credited to John Grierson, a Scot with a gift for publicity who was behind Night Mail and Housing Problems He saw documentary as the creative treatment of actuality. Robert Greene quotes Grierson and later adds, "there is, emphatically, no boundary between fiction and documentary, but truth matters more than ever. This, of course, is the great paradox of documentary: authenticity must be manufactured and reality must guide our fabrications." (Sight and Sound) If documentary started out with a high degree of pragmatism that Greene sees has returned to the form, including in his excellent Kate Plays Christine, it was often most rigorously respectful to reality in the sixties and seventies under the auspices of Direct Cinema. These were observational documentaries based on minimum intervention: no voice-over, no direct-to-camera interviews; often recording many hours of footage that the filmmaker would then sift through to find the story. Its most austere practitioner Frederick Wiseman (Welfare; Meat; High School) still holds to the same principles: "[My] Shooting ratio [is] roughly 60/1. During the shooting, I just collect sequences. I don't have any theme or point of view toward the material; the only assumption that I make is that if I hang around long enough, I'll collect enough material out of which I can cut a film. I discover the themes in the editing process, when I come back from the shoot." (PureMovies.com)

Claims that the boundary between factual and fictional films has dissolved risk losing important distinctions and leads to an inverse naivety. If the viewer misses the manipulation, seeing a true story they don't question, then at the other end the viewer misses the distinctions between degrees of reality the filmmakers seek to explore, the type of theme they want to bring out. A film more concerned with the intricacies of Formula 1 politics may have required a greater observational acuity, relying on lengthier takes in the archival footage as it showed us the various players and their motives. But that isn't the film Kapadia has made. In Senna, everyone else is a supporting character to its titular hero, and the film's purpose is to show a man who has more sympathy for the poor of his country than the rich involved in Formula 1. The film shows no strong friendships and Senna shows little loyalty to those around him.

We might find this ok when it comes to joining McLaren and believing that his teammate is more his rival (Prost) but less so when he ditches McLaren for Williams and thus his important and affectionate relationship with Ron Dennis, McLaren's team leader who the film shows as a supportive figure in Senna's life. Senna announces to the cameras that it will probably be his last season for McLaren and the film then shows us Dennis and Senna in conversation, with Dennis saying "OK, we will put behind us what happened." Little is made of Senna's family wealth in the film but in an interview elsewhere Dennis noted that "I think he probably bought into [his first team] Toleman...I doubt whether he was driving there not having any financial contribution." ('Ron Dennis Talks About Senna) We might believe it has told us in this moment too much and too little - that we might wish for more on the intricacies of Formula 1 because it has alluded to an aspect of events that could benefit from more exploration.

Our point isn't to insist on the falsity of Kapadia's film but one can acknowledge that the counterfactual is inevitably much more present in documentary filmmaking than fiction. Yet it can be naive to make too much of what is left out. There are obviously scenes dropped from fiction films all the time and stars who exit a project either through choice or obligation. In the Mood for Love, there was a lovemaking scene the director edited out of the final cut, and Robert De Niro ended up in the gangster role in The Untouchables that Bob Hoskins was paid to do if De Niro didn't wish to take the part. But fiction films don't usually (unless a biopic) have the entire life of someone to access when making a film. If the documentary ratio to shooting is far higher than in fiction films, there is also the ratio of life lived to life used in a documentary telling. Wonderful film characters like Michael Corleone, George Bailey and Scarlett O'Hara don't have a broader reality that we can compare with what makes it on the screen. (Though fiction films taken from novels do have a counterfactual dimension.) When watching a documentary account of a given subject, we can, but that doesn't mean we ought to nit-pick about what is absent from the film. What is important is seeing that what has been chosen is in its way as deliberate as in a fiction work. The viewer might wish to then understand the type of documentary the film happens to be based on the specifics offered in the context of a much broader life.

In Senna, the film shows a young man with a punningly strong drive who is both scapegoat (within Formula 1) and a Christ-like figure in Brazil. He has in Prost a rival who undermines him and proposes that Senna's religious beliefs make him feel he is immortal and consequently a danger to himself and other drivers. He dies in a crash not because he is reckless but because the car is inadequate and while nobody would claim his death was a murder, nevertheless the film suggests laxness on the part of Williams a lengthy court case followed Senna's death. The film proposes Formula 1 made him a hero and turned him into a martyr, with 3 million attending his funeral: the same number of attendees who paid their respects to Eva Peron. Kapadia manages to ignore many of the complexities of the sport for the drama to be found in it, and emphasises the dangers and the individualism over the mundanity and the teamwork. It might seem inevitably exciting a sport that has men racing each other in cars going 220 mph, but anyone who has watched motor racing without a love for the sport, or the intricacies of a car's performance, might just have heard an endless droning sound. Senna manages to take found footage and find in it an excitement it might not have always originally possessed, making a film that paradoxically has more adrenaline to it than many a Formula 1 race. That takes a filmmaker making numerous choices, even if all of those choices could be found in various archives. This makes for a film that is authentic and manipulative; which needn't be cause for alarm. It simply necessitates pause for thought.


© Tony McKibbin