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Film: Some Thoughts on Senna

Submitted by on August 23, 2011

Senna 1991 Brazil

The bottom line is simple: if you’re a fan of Motorsport Retro, cars, and those golden years of motorsport which we all cherish, or a fan of film and documentaries, Senna is worth watching. You’ve probably already seen it. Let’s talk about it anyway.

I have struggled to write this story; to collect, organise, and understand my thoughts and feelings toward Senna. When the lights brought us back to the present after our screening of the film, I asked my viewing companions what they thought, and if they had enjoyed it. We are all heavily involved in motorsport; invested in cars and the adventures, friendships, skills and growth that they bring. The response was telling. Asking if they had enjoyed the movie was the wrong question. Gone in 60 Seconds is a movie you sit back and enjoy. Senna is a brilliant film, one which can challenge and confront, as well as entertain and inspire.

I would have enjoyed Senna if director Asif Kapadia had cut together two hours of on-board footage, classic racing, and off-track shenanigans and beamed it across the silverscreen to the soundtrack of those lovely 80s Formula One engines. In some ways I would have preferred it. What I found was something that’s sad, challenging, and even confronting at times, while being simultaneously happy, inspiring and full of love.

Kapadia was looking at an impossible task when he began the Senna project. An insurmountable mountain of fantastic footage, a legendary life, and a thousand epic tales to be collected, culled, and woven into one cohesive story. He and his team have done an amazing job, bringing it all together with superb editing and pacing to tell Ayrton Senna’s story in the moment. Throughout the whole film you are transported back in time to ride with Senna through a career that defined the sport.

The film looks at Ayrton Senna the man; his spirituality, competitiveness, patriotism and passion, his rise through Formula One, his rivalry with Alain Prost, his problems with the sport’s politics, and the special relationship he shared with his home country, Brazil, and its people.

It is unabashed in its portrayal of Senna himself. Hinting at, but never diving into his ruthless competitiveness, or the darker sides of his character in depth.

Here we may find one of the film’s problems. Ayrton Senna may only have been on this earth for a short time, but his star burned brightest, and left an incredible legacy. Each of these topics could be a film in and of itself, and so for some, Senna may leave stories they wished to hear untold, and leave interesting subjects untouched. The film sticks to its line, driven by a strong narrative, telling the story it wants to tell, and for that it is all the more compelling and powerful.

What struck me about Senna was its humanity; the glimpses into racing drivers’ need to confront and overcome the razor edge on which they must dance to do what they do – to win. We think of drivers as these impossibly fearless, unshakable icons. Senna shows us the men. And, in particular, the man; his relationship with Sid Watkins, his reaction to incidents – like jumping out of his car in free practice to help Erik Comas – and concern for his fellow drivers.

I went into Senna knowing the outcome; knowing what had to unfold when it turned its gaze to the worst weekend – Imola, 1994 – and yet I couldn’t help but to be gripped, moved, saddened, and even inspired by it. That says a lot for the superb editing, pacing, and storytelling that makes Senna a great documentary, and a great film.

Have you seen it? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Image: TheCahierArchive©

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