In the late Eighties, many of us Brits may fondly recall lazy summer Sundays spent in the garden with family and visiting relatives over for the day. Patio doors left open facilitated access to the kitchen inside. They occasionally revealed the sound of whining Grand Prix motor cars from the living room telly adjacent; a source of background entertainment in the unlikely event you had ventured indoors for something other than a refill. The point is that Formula One was for the gross majority then, and remains for many of us still, an exercise in background entertainment whether we have heard of three times Formula One champion Ayrton Senna, or not.


The immediate success of Asif Kapadia’s recent sports documentary, Senna, is that the piece successfully appeals to more than just than your average Formula One motorhead, but have just have swelled their ranks in doing so. As the compelling story of an exceptionally gifted individual at the height of his powers, it is unrivalled in documentary film making over recent years. As an insight into the working history of the Formula One machine, with all its politics, money and corruption, it is equally engrossing, and yet the sport of motor racing, just as it might have appeared previously in your Eighties living room, essentially plays a supporting role to a far bigger event.

Kapadia’s decision to entirely employ archive footage of Senna is the masterstroke here, with the Brazilian driver eerily narrating his own life story for the most part. The material research has been meticulous, as it had to in constructing an entirely ‘source documentary’ pieced together from recorded film taken over twenty years ago. Numerous home videos, Grand Prix races, interviews and news coverage all contribute to building a real sense of Ayrton Senna the man – a contrasting amalgam of playboy celebrity, religious faith, social conscience and dogged determination.

The resulting film retains the feel of gripping real life drama unfolding before your very eyes, rather than the familiar convention of reflective, posthumous documentary . Moments of real pathos present themselves in the simplest of interview, such as when Senna reveals his hopes for the future after winning the Formula One Championship for the third time (Kapadia’s choice of Giles Peterson score works brilliantly here), barely three years from tragedy upon the track at Imola.

Scenes such as these are as heartbreaking as they are eery in the context of prior knowledge about a young life cut short, and sound a sad footnote to lost potential.

Formula One fans will no doubt have something to say about the negative depiction of technology advancements at Williams which seemingly explain away Senna’s latter championship failures at the hands of Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost. However the Frenchman, who appears to win titles by accumulating points over podium finishes, had friends in higher places (step aside Sepp Blatter, all marvel at former F1 chief, Jean-Marie Balestre) and is merely a necessary pantomine villain for the piece. Kapadia addresses this with later footage of the Frenchman bearing his former team mate’s coffin at the funeral, and a final mission statement during the closing credits reveals Prost as a trustee of the Senna foundation. Likewise the early inclusion of Prost’s wonderful Selina Scott interview is surely significant in balancing opinion.

The immediacy of Kapidia’s approach ultimately proves as exhilarating as the final in-car camera sequence prior to the crash itself. Although the discernable benefit of an extraordinary wealth of archive footage available, Senna recalls documentary film making to challenge mainstream cinema.

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