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The Way It Is/ A look at 'Senna', the movie

by Gordon Kirby
A few days before this year's Indianapolis 500 some of us were treated to a private screening of the new feature film about Ayrton Senna. 'Senna' is an excellent movie, a must-see for any racing fan. It's worlds apart from most racing movies, particularly recent efforts like Sylvestor Stallone's woefully inept 'Driven' and Tom Cruise's cliche-riddled 'Days of Thunder'. Its worldwide release started a few months ago in Brazil and it debuted in the UK last week. The movie will be launched here in the United States starting August 12th.

'Senna' was written by longtime racing fan Manish Pandey, produced by James Gay-Rees whose father was a race fan, and directed by Asif Kapadia who knew nothing about racing--an ideal mix as it turns out. 'Senna' is produced by Working Title Productions in association with Midfield Films and presented by Universal Pictures in association with StudioCanal. Working Title is one of the UK's most successful film production companies. The Senna movie is a documentary rather than a historical drama, but it's done in unique fashion without talking head interviews.

"It wasn't easy to persuade people to drop the talking heads because that's the starting point for many documentary films," said director Kapadia. "There were a lot of very experienced people who were involved in the film and that was a difficult argument. But my gut was always saying we should just let the images do the work. The more I looked at the footage, the more I realized that it tells you the story."

'Senna' was made with the full co-operation of the Senna family as well as Bernie Ecclestone who gave the production team full access to Formula One's vast stock of footage, much of it previously unseen.

© PDA (Producers Distribution Agency)
"Some of the footage we use is from YouTube, we have super 8 footage and some of it was shot on 35 mm," Kapadia comments. "That's the range of our movie. For me it was always going to be a mosaic that we all put together. You look up close and you aren't sure what you see. Our film will never look technically perfect but you step back and it is beautiful like a piece of Gaudi architecture. I always approached it as a fiction film, a film with real life drama and real people. Documentaries are constructed. They have always used fictional techniques. Fiction films try all the time to be real. I wanted to find a new space or genre somewhere in the middle."

The movie covers Senna's career starting in go-karts and focuses on his ten years in Formula One and rivalry with Alain Prost as well as the tragic weekend at Imola in 1994 where he crashed to his death. It's a very emotional movie--much like Senna himself--but also reveals the intellectual aspects of racing entirely unlike 'Driven' and 'Days of Thunder'. This is a movie that should reach beyond the traditional racing audience and inform the wider world in a positive and intriguing manner about the sport we love.

"Senna's story is amazing and we have this great three-act structure to work with," Kapadia said. "You have his rise, his success, and then the challenges he faces when he gets to the top. There is the 'comedy bad guy' (FIA president Jean-Marie) Balestre, the rival with four world titles, Prost, and then there's Senna's personal side, his family, his girlfriends, the relationship he has with Brazil, and there's tension, drama, tragedy. It is absolutely what films should be, and it's all real."

The movie has its failings--like many works of art--primarily because it views the world through Senna's eyes. It can be argued that the film unfairly disparages Alain Prost, painting the Frenchman as a master politician and manipulator and ignoring the fact that Senna probably was even more accomplished at these nefarious practices.

Nor does it put Senna's often forceful and sometimes downright dirty driving tactics into perspective. The great Brazilian was a supremely fast driver and unrelentingly committed racer, but he lacked the sportsmanlike qualities of the greatest of all drivers such as Juan-Manuel Fangio, Jim Clark, Stirling Moss, Rick Mears and Dan Gurney, highly ethical gentlemen and equally fierce racers who never considered--in fact abhorred--any thoughts of blocking, squeezing or hitting another competitor.

Still, 'Senna' captures the mentality and atmosphere of big-time motor racing like few other movies, if any, have ever done. It also presents a superb portrait of Senna and the idolatry he generated in Brazil and around the world. As well as being a fine movie it could turn out to be a boost for Formula One in America by enticing a wider audience to take an interest in the sport as F1 tries next year to re-establish itself in the United States.

I talked last week with Manish Pandey following the movie's debut in the UK and Pandey was in extremely good spirits. He was delighted with the initial reactions to the film and shared my hopes that it will be good for widening the public recognition of the sport.

"Yesterday was the first time I saw the film with the paying public," Pandey said. "Asif and I did an introduction and a Q&A with the people and afterwards we went to dinner with some parents from my son's school who came to see the film. One of them knows nothing about Formula One and didn't even know who Ayrton Senna was and she was the one on the table that was most moved.

© PDA (Producers Distribution Agency)
"She was so moved by the film and it really occured to me that the challenge Formula One has always had is really the challenge we had in making this film. And that is that why would anybody want to watch a sport which looks like cars going 'round and 'round a track where you can't even see a driver's face and you can't see the crowd react.

"But if you can get the audience to dig a little bit deeper the treasure that comes of out Formula One is better than in any sport. I defy you to find a sport out there that is more visceral, more exciting, more about humanity, more about the good and the bad things that people are all about, and all about politics and egos. It's just life, and it's wonderful to have people who have no interest at all want to dig in a little bit deeper.

"The film in a way gives them a chance to think about it, at least, and some of them will come out really loving this sport that I absolutely love. That for me is the best reward of all."

Pandey was also touched by a comment made about the movie on British radio last week by F1's much respected retired medical chief Doctor Syd Watkins.

"Professor Watkins was asked what he thought of the film on radio four yesterday morning on the Today show. And for me, what he said was the best thing he could've possibly said. It was amazing. He said, 'It's highly accurate. The boys have done a great job.' And to hear that from Prof Watkins was amazing. To do it right just has meant everything."

Pandey was equally delighted that Bernie Ecclestone came to the movie's UK premier. Nor could he have been more pleased with Ecclestone's reaction to the film.

"No-one at Universal believed Bernie was going to show up and guess what?" Pandey remarked. "He showed up. And at the end he came up to me, gave me a massive hug and whispered in my ear, 'You are a really good boy. That was a super film. Well done. We always knew you'd do it.

"He asked, 'How long is this film going to be out there?' I said, 'Well Bernie, it depends on the market. It depends on whether people come and see the film or not.' And he paused and had a little think and he said, 'No Manish. You've made something that will live forever.'

For more on the making of 'Senna' you should pick up a copy of the latest July issue of Motor Sport in which our editor-in-chief Nigel Roebuck and special contributor Adam Cooper write in much more detail about the man and the movie. And be sure to see 'Senna' when the movie is released here in the United States on August 12th.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2011 ~ All Rights Reserved

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