I’ve recently watched two major sports documentaries that were both out in cinemas last year and that have both received high critical acclaim.
On Saturday night, I watched Senna (dir. Asif Kapadia) on DVD. On Monday night, I watched Fire in Babylon (dir. Stevan Riley) on BBC4 as part of the Storyville series. Both featured sporting giants that I have been aware of since childhood, but perhaps I was never fully informed of their stories.
Everyone has been raving about Senna in the media from Stephen Fry to Zoe Ball. “You don’t have to like Formula 1, they all say, “it’s for everyone”. And there are similar reviews about Fire in Babylon, a film about the West Indies cricket team from 1975-1984. Neither documentary gets bogged down in the sporting language or intricacies of the way in which the sport is played. They’re both about the personalities and the politics within and without the sport. But honestly, I think some understanding of both sports is necessary, precisely because neither film explains the sport itself that much, expecting non-sport lovers to just be taken in by the stories.
The shadow looming over Senna is of course Ayrton Senna’s fatal car crash in 1994. The whole film is leading to that endpoint – how Senna got to the top of his sporting field and then the tragedy of his demise. Using old footage from his races, old interviews with Senna, and some family home videos, Senna traces his rise from go-kart driver to three-time world champion. Particular focus is placed on his personal drive and character that pushed him to keep racing, his relationship with God, and his fierce rivalry with Alain Prost. You also get a very clear sense of how so very important Senna’s victories were for the country of Brazil. 1990s Brazil was a country of favelas, slums and poverty. Disregarding the national football team, the film explains how Senna’s victories gave Brazilians national pride at a time of economic and social misery. This was a guy who waved the Brazilian flag with pride and pushed through to victory in the Brazilian Grand Prix despite a jammed gear box and spasms in his shoulders.
Although Senna interviews some of Ayrton Senna’s contemporaries in the present-day, such as Ron Dennis from Maclaren, Senna’s sister, and various journalists, you don’t see their “talking heads”, you just hear their voices over the footage. It’s a film that greatly admires Ayrton Senna, the man and the driver, and he’s (obviously) the hero of the piece. You also realise the very real dangers of the sport – and how lucky Formula1 has been not to have had many more fatal crashes.