Staff Recommendations: Senna

Cornerhouse AV Technician Dave Petty reviews Senna

Back in the 90s I was a huge fan of Formula One. It’s reasonable to assume that most teenage boys still are, too – between that and football, there’s a visceral, masculine appeal to both sports that one can’t help but find alluring. The huge success of Top Gear in recent years is testament to the draw of a fast car, with added chauvinism to boot. The fact it’s taken so long for a film to get made about the sport (if you discount John Frankenheimer’s stylish but bloated 1966 effort Grand Prix) is a surprise in itself, though it was worth the wait. Senna, Asif Kapadia’s 104 minute paean to arguably the greatest Formula 1 driver of all time, spends little time getting down to business – in fact, one is barely given pause for breath right from the opening credits.

What takes you by surprise though is how sparsely the film is peppered with back story – no studio-filmed interviews, only audio snippets from interviews both new and old, the entire film is a construct created from what must have amounted to thousands of hours of footage (the F1 races themselves aren’t limited to just the British broadcasts – we take in Italian, Brazilian and Japanese footage along the way).

But oddly enough this stylistic decision works in its favour, stripping the film of many of the usual clichés associated with the documentary genre, playing out almost like a fictional account of a driver’s career told through documentary footage cleverly strung together to form a piece full of heroes, villains, action and romance: the requisite ingredients for any self-respecting drama. It’s this almost blinkered focus on Senna’s driving career that propels the film at a lightning pace, with highlights along the way being Senna’s intense and often dangerous rivalry with fellow driver and one-time teammate Alain Prost; behind-the-scenes footage of pre-race driver meetings (Senna defiantly storming out of one in a standout scene); and of course Senna’s legendarily reckless style of racing. Seeing some of the in-car camera footage on the big screen alone is worth the price of admission.

What Senna is exactly is up for debate. Despite plenty of home movie footage it’s hardly a warts-and-all account as the film skips over some of the more salacious aspects of Senna’s private life. But in lieu of recent incidents of sportsmen in the media (specifically the lives of footballers off the pitch rather than on it) Senna’s life was the race track and the film signifies the importance of its protagonists’ role within his chosen field and not the tabloid fodder that may have surrounded it. With a career choice so well-suited to cinema, you can see why the decision has been made to focus on the racing – it really would take a hardy soul not to be thrilled by the footage Kapadia has compiled. It’s hard for me to not be biased, however with its golden period seemingly over I’ve not followed Formula 1 since my teens and I wasn’t entirely looking forward to a film full of talking heads telling me what a great man Senna was. In this film, the driving does the talking. This isn’t a dry expression of sporting artistry in the way that Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait was; this is a tense, moving, and ultimately thrilling rollercoaster of a film, what one might term an unashamed crowd-pleaser – not unlike the driver himself.

Cornerhouse Usher Hannah Dalby reviews Senna

I was less than enthusiastic when I heard that Cornerhouse was screening Senna and I have no interest in men driving cars around a track… but having seen this film I thought that it was fantastic! Senna is an insightful, exciting and emotive documentary which was made better for me because I didn’t previously know about the subject, Ayrton Senna – so every twist and turn in his eventful career was new to me.  I was jumping out of my seat during some of the race footage and by the end I was slightly teary! As an Usher and having watched the film again, and I’ve found it equally enjoyable – although there have been a lot more tears as the inevitability of the story is heartbreaking.

Senna is a film which can be enjoyed by all.  It tells the story of a man and his development within his career, which happens to be Formula 1 racing.  The film works because you are there with Senna – it is made up of archive footage which takes you through each stage of his professional career.  There is no real analysis or debate from talking heads, which allows the viewer space to become immersed in his life.  I would recommend Senna to anyone to go and see.  As long as you are willing to get carried along with the film, you can’t help but be moved by it.

Cornerhouse LiveWire Critic Jay Crosbie reviews Senna

Senna is an incredibly difficult film to review. First and foremost the source material for Senna is incredibly niche as essentially, it’s a film about the life of a Formula 1 driver. Especially at it is rare to see a film about such a sport as it’s not nearly as popular as Football. Secondly, as a documentary, some of the avenues about a film you can explore have been cut off. However, don’t let either of those points put you off seeing this film, as Senna is one of the most fascinating documentaries since An Inconvenient Truth.

Senna tells the life and times of one of Formula 1′s most influential drivers, Aryton Senna. Through a stream of documentary footage, Director Asif Kapadia gives us an insight into the life and ultimate premature death of one of F1′s most important drivers.

Where Kapadia succeeds massively is by making what could have easily been an incredibly boring documentary, incredibly interesting. The use of back catalog footage of his races and the aspects of his more private life means that everything feels that much more real. Kapadia strings it together in such a manner meaning that getting bored isn’t an option. The film flourishes and becomes a weird hybrid between poignant documentary and drama. It is an incredibly refreshing approach to a source material that could have been a disaster if not handled with such care.

Aryton Senna as a person is portrayed through Kapadia’s choice of footage as such an interesting, honest and humorous man that you can’t help but feel for him. The way that Kapadia portrays him doesn’t only emphasize his positive characteristics, but also shows his more negative characteristics meaning Aryton Senna becomes a remarkable figure, so well rounded it’s impossible to not care for him.

However, although ultimately Senna is about doing what ever you want and not letting anyone stand in your way, the source material at first is incredibly off putting. In fact, I’ve heard numerous people mention that they don’t want to see it because they’re not a fan of ‘F1′ racing and they feel as if it wouldn’t appeal to them. Such a niche source material meant that the opening 20 minutes for me were slightly daunting.

However, Senna is not only an excellent film, but a remarkable tale. It’s a film that if you persevere with, you’ll feel greatly rewarded by at the end of it. It is smart, funny and manages to spin F1 with interesting political elements. Don’t be put off by it, embrace it. Senna is a joy from start to finish.

Rating: 4.5/5