Senna (2010)

Film title: Senna

“Everything that happens is real, and I didn’t shoot a frame of it. I didn’t need to. My team and I used the actual footage to create a three-act story of the life of Ayrton Senna.”1
Asif Kapadia

“All aspects of documentary filmmaking involve choice and are therefore manipulative.”2
Frederick Wiseman

Senna (Dir. Asif Kapadia, 2010) is an unusual film. It represents the first foray into documentary film for the writer, director, producer and even the production company (Working Title). Disregarding his inexperience in the documentary form, Asif Kapadia is still not the most obvious choice to direct the first major film to deal with the life of Formula One legend Ayrton Senna. The resume of the British director, originally from Hackney, chiefly contains epic but understated human dramas in remote locations (he presented his last, Far North, at the Glasgow Film Festival in 2008) alongside one ill-fated foray into the Hollywood thriller genre with The Return (2006).

Kapadia has said, “For me, film is a very visual medium. I’m not the sort of person who will make a film that is really dialogue heavy”3. For Senna, the director’s preference for visual storytelling has evolved into a rejection of talking heads or objective voiceover as part of the fabric of his film and a reliance instead upon period footage and audio-only interviews with first-hand observers of and participants in the story.


Although any story dealing with spectacular endeavour but ending in tragedy is ripe for dramatic depiction, several moments in Senna are almost preternaturally suited to the scheme of the monomyth, Joseph Campbell’s famous “hero’s journey” template for world myth. This seems even more remarkable, given Kapadia’s decision to reject the standard talking heads and voiceover approach, which would have allowed a more authorial slant. Dealing with only extant footage and focussing wherever possible on the subject’s own narration, the heroic account of Senna’s journey appears self evidently veracious.

It’s less remarkable, perhaps, when the filmmakers’ explanation of their deliberate approach is taken into account. Kapadia and Manish Pandey, the writer, make no bones about their intention to structure the film in this way and certainly do not shy away from the mythical subtext. Pandey has said, “Senna’s story is, for me, the story of man – of his quest for perfection in this worldly life and of his journey home to God.”4 The writer has elucidated, “I even had in my mind what the three acts would be – his ascent to the World Championship, his struggle, which only begins when he becomes World Champion, and then his death, which is the whole third act.”5 The result is a film that has been described as “hagiographic”6 and “panegyric”,7 but most often has simply been praised for its thrilling, Hollywood-style presentation of real world events.


Often consciously employed in fiction (most famously by George Lucas for his Star Wars saga), the monomythical structure is not unknown in documentary film. Academy-Award-winning documentary maker Davis Guggenheim made overt use of it in The First Year (TV, 2001) and An Inconvenient Truth (2006), where imposing Joseph Campbell’s structure on Al Gore’s life ostensibly made the science involved more compelling for prospective audiences. Senna is equally as deliberate in its presentation, even though the subject matter is far more obviously suitable.

Campbell’s 1949 book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, delineates several stages of the mythical hero’s journey, not all of which have to be present in every story, and not necessarily in the same order. Divided in three sections that correspond with Pandey’s description of the acts of his script (Departure, Initiation and Return), many of the individual stages can be identified in the final film’s construction. Thus Senna heeds The Call To Adventure when he enters into the world of racing, traverses The Road Of Trials with its “multitude of preliminary victories”,8 finds Atonement With The Father, wherein he “transcends life with its peculiar blind spot and for a moment rises to a glimpse of the source,”9 and achieves Apotheosis (“He opened the Bible and read a passage that said God would give him the greatest gift of all, that of God himself.”10 Finally, upon his death, Senna becomes The Master Of Two Worlds, physically departed but alive in legend.


Imposing this mythic structure on the 15,000 hours of footage reportedly available, the filmmakers inevitably excised elements that perhaps did not fit the overall arc. It is also important to note that Senna is a film that would not have been possible without the approval of Senna’s family and Eccleston, two parties that clearly lack total objectivity. Further, by limiting themselves to the available footage and, as a rule, focussing on pre-existing interviews with Senna himself, the filmmakers would not be able to draw in much relevant but peripheral information. For example, Jean-Marie Balestre, the clear ‘villain’ of the piece – although also analogous with Campbell’s mythical father figure – had a questionable background in the French SS. Aside from the villainous connotations of such a history, it has been suggested his consequent conspicuous patriotism may have clouded his judgement with regards to Senna’s rival Prost.11 Neither is any mention made of Senna’s brief marriage, or his three-year relationship with Adriane Yamin, who was 15 when the courtship began.

On the other hand, while footage apparently exists of Senna standing at the corner where he met his death, one month earlier, saying “Somebody is going to die at this corner this year”, Kapadia rejected its use,12 perhaps aware that the subtle but profound fatalism his film evokes would be undermined by such an overt statement. However, a 90-minute rendition of any human life is inevitably reductive and, as John Grierson famously claimed, “The only reality which counts in the end is the interpretation which is profound.”13 Senna’s own sense of fate, of God’s will, is what drove him and what ultimately drives Senna.

Sean Welsh, June 2011
This article was originally commissioned as a programme note by GFT.


1. Asif Kapadia: ‘Why I Made Senna
2. As quoted by Frank Spotnitz, ‘Dialogue on Film: Frederick Wiseman’, American Film, May 1991
3. Asif Kapadia, Case Study: Asif Kapadia
4. Manish Pandey, ‘The Journey To Senna
5. Manish Pandey, quoted in ‘Senna: The Making Of A Screen Idol’, Motorsport Magazine, July 2011, p53
6. Matt Bochenski, Senna review, Little White Lies, May/June 2011, p63
7. Dan Jolin, Senna review, Empire, July 2011,p44
8. Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), p100
9. Ibid, p135
10. Viviane Senna in Senna (Dir. Asif Kapadia, 2010)
11. David Wakefield, ‘Obituary : Jean-Marie Balestre
12. Jolin, p44
13. John Grierson, Grierson on Documentary ed. Forsyth Hardy (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1966) p145

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