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The one and only Senna

Formula 1 is big sport nowadays, although not everyone’s cup of tea. But how can a documentary about a Formula One race-car driver become a box office hit? Senna (dir. Asif Kapadia, 2010) is the documentary in question, 104 min. long documentary about the Brazilian race-car driver Ayrton Senna. Senna had a remarkable career, winning three world – championships as Formula One driver and who at the peak of his career, died in an crash at the San Marina Grand Prix 1994.

Senna was born in São Paulo, Brazil 1960 and from early age he had a great passion for driving and was determined to become a professional race-car driver. He made his F1 debut in 1984, and from then on it was clear that Senna was a talented driver, driven by passion for driving as well as faith in God. He won his first Grand Prix in 1985 and more Grand Prix followed. In the 1991 F1 Grand Prix at Interlagos in Sao Paolo, Brazil, Senna had the chance to win his first Grand Prix on a home ground. Mid way through it started raining, creating the most ideal driving conditions for Senna who was especially good driver in wet conditions. He landed the first place, which not only brought him the Grand Prix title, but also made him extremely happy and Brazilians even more so. He won his first World Champion title in 1988, the second in 1991 and his final one in 1992 and by that time, he become the world´s best race-car drivers and one of Brazil´s most favorite national heroe.

Fated to die?

“Just because I believe in God, just because I have faith in God, it doesn’t mean that I’m immune. It doesn’t mean that I’m immortal”, Ayrton Senna.

Senna was very religious Catholic and talked openly about his faith in God. Events leading up to the crash in may 1994, reminded Senna that he was not immortal. He had recently joined Williams team and he was struggling with his car but F1 regulations had been changed from the season before. His season had started badly and something was just not right. The footage of Senna from his final days show a different Senna, a serious man who looks stressed out. This was a different Senna that most people knew, who was usually confident and in good spirits. Just two days before his death, Brazilian race-car driver Rubens Barrichello had a bad accident on the San Marino race ground but luckily his injuries were not serious. Another accident followed the day after, when Austrian Roland Ratzenberger, died in a crash. Ratzenberger´s death was the first one Senna had experienced in F1. Shaken by these horrific events, Senna still decided to drive on the race day, the day after Ratzenberger´s death.

‘On that final morning, he woke and opened his bible and read a text that he would receive the greatest gift of all which was God, himself.’ Viviane, Ayrton’s sister.

Senna died when he crashed his car into a concrete barrier in the San Marino Grand Prix May 1st 1994. He died from fatal skull fractures. His death was a great shock to many, not only his family,  friends and professionals in the race-car sports, but also to his fans. He was a lot more than a national hero to his fellow Brazilians who flocked to the streets of São Paulo Paulo by millions for his funeral few days after his death. Followed his death, F1 later changed it´s regulations and no driver has died in F1 since Senna died.

Senna was a proud Brazilian and when he was alive, he made sure to give some of his fortune to society, donating money to NGO projects. And his legacy lives on. After his death, the Ayrton Senna Institute was founded. The institute is a charitable foundation, which provides educational opportunities to deprived Brazilian children.

5,000 hours of footage

Senna is directed by Asif Kapadia, written by Manish Pandey, edited by Chris King & Gregers Sall with music by Antonio Pinto. The film had great press reviews and theatrical attendance. It had  the best documentary debut in the UK 2011 and also did very well in the USA. Festival success has also been good for Senna. It won the Audience Award World Cinema Documentary at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and the Audience Award for Best International Feature at the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival. The film did not land an Oscar nomination as was expected by many, but received two BAFTA awards earlier this year;  Best Documentary & Best editing, as well as one BAFTA nomination; Outstanding British Film.

The whole film is based on archive footage from F1, some of which has never been seen, Brazilian television and sport news archive. Senna´s family also fully supported the making of the film, providing the filmmakers with personal home video footage and interviews. In total, the filmmakers worked with over 5,000 hours of footage from ten different countries. Judging from this information, it´s obvious the film editors Chris King & Gregers Sall had a big task. The film progresses chronologically, the earliest footage from the late seventies or so until 1994. There are no ‘talking heads’ in the film and the interviewees´voices are all ‘voice-overs’. This works out brilliantly and strengthens the flow of the film, making it more cinematic in style. If there had been talking-heads, the flow might have been disrupted, the story going back and forth in place and time. There are many memorable scenes in the film such as Senna´s victory at the Interlagos, there is excitement and tension and before you know it you are at the edge of your seat wishing Senna a victory. This scene would have looked totally different with a talking head or two and a lot less exciting. It´s no wonder the film took year and a half to cut. ‘The first cut was over seven hours long’, according to press notes on the film´s website.

Senna is a one of a kind story of a national hero and one of the world´s best race-car drivers who made his mark on the F1 forever. Senna was a passionate person who followed his dream, worked hard for it, and lived it to the fullest until his tragic death. Aside from the Senna himself, the strength of the film is the people behind the film and their ability to make the story interesting enough for people who never heard of Senna, or F1 for that matter, want to see the film. The cinematic feel of film makes it also noteworthy for several reasons. Style wise it boarders between documentary and fiction one cannot but wonder how much Senna will influence future documentaries. I most likely will.

“Senna Emotion” an interactive exhibition about Ayrton Senna is currently running in Curitiba at the Cultural Sistema Fiep from August 1st to the 31st. Check it our if you are there.

Following is the trailer for the film. Photos are from the film´s website, and the poster is from here. The DVD can be bought from Amazon.

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