Told entirely through archive Asif Kapadia‘s Senna takes you through Brazilian Formula One champion Ayrton Senna‘s career from his days in go-karting through to his tragic death at thirty-four in the San Marino Grand Prix.
The film’s real triumph comes through its superb editing and astonishing use of archive. The archive usage is similar to this year’s Black Power Mixtape which also decides to forgo the use of talking head interviews and instead allows comment through voiceover alone, with on-screen captions. As with Mixtape, this is a very effective method as it keeps you absorbed in the footage allowing you to travel through a large timeframe seamlessly remaining engaged in the narrative path of the film.
It’s hard not to fall for Senna as a central character as he is portrayed as someone in love with driving, totally intolerant to the politics of his sport, and rebellious through principle. The choice to bring smaller, subtler moments of behind the scenes footage around the racing itself to the forefront gives you a greater sense of intimacy and understanding of the the atmosphere Senna experienced during his career.
The focus on Senna’s personal experience and mental state is completely understandable, he is incredibly engaging, and his apparent inability to conform to the game playing within his industry provides you with completely frank interviews. This makes him naturally stand out among his more media-savvy rivals in the film, as you rarely see similar levels of honesty from them. His career-long rivalry with teammate Alain Prost is wonderfully tense and dramatic, and beautifully told through extremely telling looks and comments in moments outside of the track.
However, I wish the archive had been allowed to speak for itself in places that were overly described, especially when depicting moments of extreme stress or conflict. My only other slight problem with the film, and this could be more a matter of taste or limitations of footage, was that I desperately wanted to see more of his experience while driving. It was obvious from the footage of the numerous races throughout the film that there were many aspects that made Senna exceptional, but I didn’t get a feeling for what the experience of driving itself meant to him. The one scene that I found most thrilling to watch, came straight after his win at the Brazilian Grand Prix, in which winning on home soil meant so much to him that the audio from his car allows you to hear him screaming with triumph and pride. Likewise, every moment from his car’s on-board camera was exhilarating, as was the footage and explanation as to why he was so much more capable during bad weather conditions, which really added to your perception of his qualities of his character, in addition to his capabilities within his profession – and left me hoping for further glimpses into that side of his experience.
Senna is a beautifully made film, with an extremely high level of skill through direction, editing and archive curation. It is a real example of how to create a thrilling and consuming portrait without relying on context through interview. Asif Kapadia has created a film that should not only please pre-existing fans of the sport and Senna, but will also captivate those who are interested in seeing a fascinating, and dramatic, personal experience.
The website for the film is here and the trailer is below.