A quick disclaimer before we get started: I’m a mad Formula 1 fan. Absolutely, totally, utterly mad for it. I make it a point to check for F1 news everyday, get the backdated issues of F1 Racing at Selvan’s (simply because RM10 is far more preferable to RM30ish), and bemoan the fact that despite having two teams and a grand prix on the F1 calendar, knowledge and enthusiasm about Formula 1 itself remains a niche in Malaysia.
Getting closer to the subject matter of this particular point, Ayrton Senna is one of my heroes. I have devoured a lot of stuff written and produced about his life, none more so than ‘Ayrton Senna: As Time Goes By’ by Christopher Hilton, a book I read periodically and completely in Kinokuniya back when I have no money. It’s funny how enamoured I am by someone who died years before I took an interest of any kind in Formula 1, but it is what it is.Death comes to all of us, but few are as glorified in it as Senna. This film, then, is a documentary that charts his life in chronological fashion. Beginning as it does with his first grand prix in 1984, we follow his journey as he progresses through to the very top of Formula 1, to his eventual death in 1994.
Is that it? Not quite, but there is one very interesting aspect of this movie I’d like to point out. The director, Asif Kapadia, has decided to discard with the talking heads approach adopted by many other documentarians. What we have instead are very carefully selected bits that is very well put together. Despite the fact that they have been culled from a number of different sources, and are not quite uniform in quality, they’ve managed to create a montage that keeps the spirit of the original alive; you can, for example, feel great tension just by watching the footage from his first Monaco race. At the same time, his sense of frustration is also very evident from his interviews, overlapping the image with other sources while maintaining the speech itself throughout. “Formula 1 is all about politics, and money,” said Senna, a theme that was to repeat throughout the film. To that end, then, this film is already fitting because the editing paid respect to the emotions of the man. Hats off, then, to Chris King and Gregers Sall. You guys must have gone through a lot of footage.
Coming back to the story, from that epic Monaco race, we move on to his seasons with McLaren. All the while, as we are treated to the visuals, the documentarians also included audio snippets of interviews conducted with those close to him. Predictably, his sister Viviane was involved (it was her greenlight that allowed this project to be produced), but it was also refreshing to hear from Niki Lauda, Murray Walker, Ron Dennis, Sid Watkins, Alain Prost, even his parents Neyde Senna and Milton da Silva. I’m not sure whether they were interviewed specifically for this film or not, but it nice to hear little things you tend not to from other sources: “He tend to pay extra attention in class so he wouldn’t have to study at home,” said his mother, remembering his son’s dedication to motorsports at the time.
Something else that was also interesting in the choice of interviewees is that journalists and race commentators themselves were also included. It’s intriguing, and yet perfectly OK, because I had assumed that this film would have been almost completely slanted towards Senna. As it turns out, the film relies a lot on footages of him both inside and outside of the cockpit, as well as the audio clips of his interviews. You really do get a sense of what’s going on in his mind during certain parts of certain races; a result of that is that you feel as if you’re hearing about them from Senna himself.
The journalists here, however, provided something more interesting: context within a text. Richard Williams, for example, mentioned Senna’s privileged background, while others would give extra information on certain races that probably would not have been considered by Senna himself. At the same time, it gives the viewers a chance to acquaint themselves with the subject matter at hand; you don’t need to be a racing fan to enjoy this film.
Of course, there is no doubt that this is a film from Senna’s point of view, and from his point of view, during his career, his biggest rival was Alain Prost. Alain Prost has contributed greatly to this documentary, but he is portrayed as a political animal here, being involved in decisions off the track that would great influence the action on it. While there are very little to directly denote that, the filmmakers presented the story with enough holes for the audience the fill up themselves. They usually did so in favour of Senna, and none more so that in the sequence when the pole position grid spot was changed on the track the day before the Japanese Grand Prix in 1990. This particular story, though, would have a better ending, as the two drivers would find some sort of truce before Senna’s death. I can’t, however, end this bit without including Prost’s attempt to flirt with a female television presenter. When she ventured how she would love to have learned how to drive a racing car, The Professor replied: “There is nothing important I can’t teach you.” That blew my mind.
Something else that blew my mind, on a more serious note, was the inclusion of another, more real professor, Sid Watkins, who was the lead medical officer at many grands prix over the years. He developed a strong friendship with Senna, and here, he shared his own thoughts on that fateful day at Imola. Though it’s not unexpected, it is very strong stuff. What does break my heart, however, was the footage of Roland Ratzenberger. We have here footage of him talking about having the need to get himself under control, filmed almost candidly and without the driver’s knowledge. Ratzenberger, of course, is the other driver who died that very same weekend, and whose name will have been forgotten by many. His was a life no less significant, and I feel that in some way, this documentary will help to remind people of that.
Nevertheless, no matter how involved with F1 you may or may not be, it’s difficult, I imagine, not to feel something when we near the film’s climax. To those who know, just the very sight of the control towers at the Imola circuit was foreboding; the words ‘San Marino Grand Prix, 1994’ further intensified the feeling in my bones. It is not a good feeling, and as the events unfolded, I felt like I was watching the whole thing for the first time.
That, then, is the film’s greatest success. It has been constructed in such a way that it was able to transport me back to the very beginning of Senna’s F1 career, and to have been involved with him every step of the way. This is an advantage the film has over other documentaries; though people are interviewed, most of their selected contributions, as decided by the filmmakers, were never more than what was appropriate for the story at that point in the plot. Thus, we watch it not with hindsight, but almost as if we were there to begin with. Perhaps this is somewhat aided by my own bias, but I have no doubt that others would also feel something about this film, about this story.
Story. This film, then, tells the story of a racing driver who was arguably the most dramatic of his generation, and it was told with all the classic elements of engaging storytelling, such as antagonists and supporting characters, almost as if it was a drama made with found footage, not a documentary. A documentary with the visuals that made us live in the past, rather than the present. The visuals served the story, and the story served the emotions.
The emotions maketh the man, the man that is Ayrton Senna da Silva.
Fikri wants to watch more of the driver briefing videos.