Senna | Blu-ray Review

Senna Review

Asif Kapadia Senna Blu-ray coverFans of motorsports generally get a bad rap, but not all racing is epitomized by the generic dim-witted redneck NASCAR fan, blasting country music and pounding cases of Bud Light. Formula One (F1), the globe-trotting super sport of high speed open-wheel road racing, has a very different audience, and though F1 has never really managed to grasp a major American audience, it is by far the most popular racing series on the planet. If you happen to be a fan of the technical brilliance and utter insanity of F1 racing, you no doubt know the name Ayrton Senna. If not, Asif Kapadia’s absolutely stunning documentary constructed solely of archival footage, Senna, serves not only as an engrossing introduction to the Brazilian driver who is considered by many to be the best to ever live, but triumphs in constructing a masterful rise and fall, complete with heroes and villains, and told by not only those involved, but the man himself.

The BAFTA Best Documentary and Sundance Film Fest’s Audience award winning doc begins with Ayrton’s quick rise from Brazilian kart racing as a teen to the international renown of F1. Upon his arrival to the majors he was instantly recognized as a supreme talent at the wheel, but very different from the majority of drivers, he was an intensely spiritual man whose national pride and genuine humility eventually made him a redemptive Brazilian icon. Anyone who watched F1 in the late 80s will remember two cars, nearly identically bearing the Marlboro name, endlessly battling for the lead, one driven by Ayrton, the other by teammate and eventual arc nemesis Alain Prost. As a traditional three act story, the bulk of Senna‘s second act is devoted to the tension filled conflict between them, in which the ugly political side of F1 starts to rear its head with the presence of its totalitarian president at the time, Jean-Marie Balestre. After Prost’s eventual retirement, a series of horrific accidents lead into the film’s final act which meditates on mortality through the development of Senna’s relationship with the medical head of F1, Sid Watkins, and Senna’s own tragic death.

Forumla One is a sport constantly under the watchful lens of cameras, whether they be for television broadcasts, personal use of fans, or independent filmmakers, and thanks to this fact, Kapadia and his team were able to find some truly incredible footage through countless hours of research in F1 archives, journalist inquiries, and personal contact with the Senna family. He gained access to footage that helped shape races into fantastic battles of rivalry or spectacular flashes of momentous personal achievement, often utilizing a variety of sources simultaneously by over dubbing audio from interviews to form a multi-dimensional narrative. By only using found material, Kapadia and his duo of editing magicians, Chris King and Gregers Sall, were forced to find ways to introduce Senna, Prost, Watkins, and Balestre, constructing the intricate relationships between these men, meanwhile showing Senna’s spirit outside the car, and the individual events that became turning points in his career – somehow managing to pull it all off flawlessly. Senna is a turn of true editing genius. Those instantly turned off by the subject matter would do well to set their assumptions aside and indulge in one of the best told stories of recent memory.

The Disc:

With very few memorable titles to their name, Arc Entertainment has found an important success story with Senna. Their Blu-ray release of the film has come out a few months after its initial DVD release, but it sure was worth the wait. The film is a mixed bag in terms of visuals, ranging from distorted and letter-boxed Japanese interview footage to stunning 35 mm film unearthed during the research process, but the transfer does its best to stay faithful to the material, and it does so without issue. While the story relies heavily on the often rough visuals, the emotional core lies in its audio. Antonio Pinto’s subtle score and the visceral roar of the cars blast out of the DTS-HD 5.1 track with striking authenticity, especially considering some of the source material. Pairing the near perfect film with plenty of extras, Arc has done a very respectable job with its newest release. The disc itself comes safely packaged in a standard Blu-ray case featuring an intense Ayrton in his iconic Brazilian striped helmet.

Audio Commentary with Director Asif Kapadia, Writer Manish Pandey and Producer James Gay-Rees
As a trio, there is constant dialogue that delves into the many decisions made to cut down the film to a reasonable length (the first cut was 5 hours long!), how they managed to collected all of this old footage from around the world, and which scenes created certain feelings to progress the story in the way they saw fit. Interestingly, they also tell much of the back story that was either cut from the film, or that they heard from others during their research. Occasionally they get off course, thanking people or just describing what’s on screen, but for the most part it is a lively and enlightening listen.

Interviews
Nearly an hour of video interviews with unidentified commentators and journalists that were some of the voices that overlayed the film. The interviews are cut together into a semi-narrative that follows Senna’s career. Unfortunately, there are occasionally non-English speakers in the mix, and no supplied subtitles, so part of the time you may be left in the dust.

Senna Family Home Videos
Only 3 minutes long, this collection of video clips is paired with bits of soundtrack music, and features Senna at home, in the car, in mid flight, shaving and playing with his son. These must have been just a few bits that didn’t make the final film.

Theatrical Trailer
Switching gears as though trying to race through the entire film in two minutes, the trailer does a poor job conveying the actual tone of the film, but it satisfactorily gets the message across.

Final Thoughts:

Creators of non-fictional cinema continue to play with the format, but Kapadia’s creation here has done something strikingly unique by refusing to utilize the traditional interview to tell Senna’s story. By incorporating only footage shot during Ayrton’s life he discovered a kind of on screen magic that only could have come from extended marathons in the editing room. As a result, Senna rests in the confines of classic storytelling while navigating outside of its sturdy realm, creating an intimate story of personal triumph, political trepidation, and unmitigated tragedy that ranks with the best of the best.

Based out of the film deprived rust belt of Buffalo, NY, Jordan M. Smith is a film critic/journalist for IONCINEMA.com and has been making the rounds at Sundance, TIFF, and Hot Docs. When he's not gazing at the glow of a big screen, he's teaching as a tech librarian. Top Films From Contemporary Film Auteurs: P.T. Anderson (There Will Be Blood), W. Anderson (The Life Aquatic), Assayas (Carlos), Almodóvar (Broken Embraces), Coen Bros. (No Country For Old Men), Gibney (We Steal Secrets), Herzog (Grizzly Man), Kar-wai (Chungking Express), Kiarostami (Certified Copy), Malick (The Tree of Life), Morris (The Wog of War), Ross Bros. (Tchoupitoulas)
  • Kgubstar1

    He was playing with his nephew Bruno Senna, who is now driving in F1.

  • http://twitter.com/RoyTheBoy_ Roy Brindley

     In making ‘Senna’ Manish Pandy and Asif Kapadia
    did not only design a faulty jigsaw
    puzzle, they also built their very own maypole and they are not afraid to dance
    around it.

    Filmmakers’ Asif
    Kapedia and Manish Pandey take a page from the BBC’s 2007 ‘Royal Family at Work’ playbook,
    blatantly distorting the truth, knowingly stating a scene is not what it is
    depicted as being in order to dramatise and sensationalise their
    documentary.

    What a year it has
    been for the United Kingdom. The Queen’s
    60th Jubilee was celebrated with lavish ceremonies, London hosted the Olympic
    Games and, to a lesser degree but all important to you, the reader, a
    British-made documentary, Senna,
    bagged a haul of awards and accolades including two BAFTAs.

    Using the maxim “if in doubt put on a concert” both the Queen’s
    Diamond Jubilee and Olympic closing ceremony featured a performance by some
    original members of a band called Madness.

    Those in their late 40’s may recall an earlier incarnation of them
    as, for a brief spell in 1980/81, they enjoyed substantial domestic sales
    success. At their peak one of their
    albums reached No.2 in the UK although that popularity was not mirrored
    elsewhere in the world and, in the musical hotbeds of North and South America,
    they failed to breach the top 100.

    32
    years hence the band has released more compilation albums than studio albums
    whilst also cashing-in on four box sets and live albums. These days, with plenty of advance notice and
    good promotion, they might sell out Skegness Butlins in mid-summer.

    Madness were rolled-out at
    the Olympics to symbolise all things Great British, as were the left-hand-drive
    Bentleys and diesel-spewing London taxis.
    I suppose they are all British as is another Olympics performer Mike
    Oldfield of Tubular Bells fame.

    Oldfield has lived in Spain, LA, Monaco and Switzerland all in an
    attempt to avoid paying UK taxes or, as according to his official line, to avoid
    smoking bans in public places.

    Then
    there is the group Iron Maiden who
    boast four UK No.1 selling albums including their latest offering which reached
    the top-spot in 28 countries.
    Additionally eight of their albums have reached the top-20 in North
    America.

    Combined it gives them album sales approaching 100 million. When not on world-wide tours performing
    before two million fans a year, waving the Union Flag and filling 60,000 seater
    stadiums, they live in the UK and pay UK taxes.

    It
    leads me to ask, why this Great British export was not invited to perform
    alongside the likes of Madness before a global audience at the Olympics. It was, after all, an event designed to
    showcase all that is great and good about Great Britain.

    Clearly someone decided their music was unpalatable to their
    particular taste therein denying the performers a rightful opportunity to
    showcase one of Great Britain’s most successful musical
    exports.

    At
    this juncture doubtlessly you believe I’ve been a fan of Iron Maiden since the year zip and there
    is nothing more I like doing than letting my hair down and letting the dandruff
    fly while head banging to the tunes of their multi-platinum selling Number of the Beast album?

    Incorrect. I am an advocate
    of fair play and honesty. I believe
    people tasked with the responsibility of showcasing successful musical exports
    need to be unbiased.

    Similarly journalists need to report facts in a fair and balanced way
    regardless of their personal opinions.
    Being a journalist is not a licence to be bigot, that luxury is only
    bestowed on columnists. They are a very
    different beast.

    Unfortunately, sometimes, we prefer to believe a lie rather than the
    facts. In fact we don’t even want to
    know the truth. Fully aware of human
    natures failings, the cliché “don’t let the truth get in the way of a good
    story” is still way too often employed by those desperate to attain notoriety
    and income via readership or viewership.
    Sensationalism and character assassination sells but tampering with the
    truth and distorting facts to better yourself…

    Currently the BBC is under the spotlight over a case of who knew
    what, what they said, why they said it and, most importantly, what they knew and
    why they said nothing.

    This is not a first
    for the corporation or its documentary makers.
    In July 2007 a trailer, previewed only to journalists, for a
    behind-the-scenes documentary titled: Monarchy, The Royal Family at Work
    showed Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth apparently
    storming out of a session with a photographer.

    It was an untruth; the shot was not what it was depicted as
    being. In fact it was not even filmed on
    the same day. Once the deliberate
    depiction of scenes out of sequence was brought to light, by the Royal
    Household, the implication of a potential five million BBC viewers being
    deceived led to the commissioning of public report, the Wyatt Report.

    When Wyatt’s report hit the fan, the BBC’s Controller, Peter
    Finchman, his head of publicity Jane Fletcher, and the creative officer at
    production company RDF Media, Stephen Lambert, all flew out of the back of
    it.

    Frightening to think of so much furore when it was, after all, just a
    trailer aired behind closed doors. This
    was not a feature film-style documentary distributed globally by the colossal
    Universal Pictures which picked up BAFTA’s for Best Editing and Best
    Documentary.

    Let’s cut to the chase here.
    I am clearly referring to the multi-award winning UK-made documentary
    titled Senna which has sold over
    600,000 DVD copies and grossed £3.2 million at the box office in the British
    Isles alone.

    The highest grossing British documentary of all time is, in places,
    dubious and in one instance, blatantly bogus.

    Even
    through the fuzzy prism of old footage, if you delve deep enough beyond evidence
    I found mysteriously disappearing before my eyes, I think you will agree the
    truth shines through.

    Undoubtedly the task of depicting a ten year career in a 100 minute
    documentary has to be difficult, some would say futile. However that should allow for the fact
    pattern to be rigidly adhered to.

    Sadly there were innuendos from the outset in Senna.
    There are too many to list. I
    would simply say Alain Prost, who may be French, has been served a massive
    injustice. His name and reputation,
    deservedly built-up over a 13 year Formula 1 career was destroyed in this
    hatchet job, the quality of which could surely be matched by a 16-year-old
    college student with access to the internet and an Apple-Mac
    laptop.

    Most
    are already aware of how FIA President Jean-Marie Balestre’s quote of “the best
    decision is my decision” was bastardised from a longer sentence which had a very
    different meaning.

    Senna was not leading by an ever increasing margin at Monaco in 1988
    because of his dominance. It was due to
    Alain Prost, the only rival with a similarly competitive car, being tucked-up
    behind Gerhard Burger and losing seconds each lap as a result.

    I
    digress.

    Senna
    is
    divided into four distinct parts: His
    first race win, his first title, his last race for McLaren which was his last
    race win, and his tragic death.

    It is act
    four, Ayrton Senna’s parting from Ron Dennis’ team, where filmmakers’
    Asif Kapedia and
    Manish Pandey take a page from the BBC’s 2007 Royal Family at Work playbook, blatantly
    distorting the truth, knowingly, stating a scene is not what it is depicted as
    being in order to dramatise and sensationalise their
    documentary.

    The scene begins with
    Ayrton walking from a hotel elevator. On
    screen a graphic appears stating AUSTRALIAN GRAND PRIX with a byline:
    FINAL RACE OF THE ’93 SEASON.

    Within one second the scene changes to a conversation at the back of
    a garage between Ron Dennis and Ayrton.
    It is a touching exchange when a fallout earlier in the day is
    discussed. Dennis suggests the argument
    is put behind them and Senna do his very best in the forthcoming race in
    Adelaide. The Brazilian agrees and
    states it he will “do exactly as I always tried [to win]”.

    The
    scene ties in beautifully with what happens next; Ayrton Senna wins the
    Australian Grand Prix. The documentary’s
    scenes move on to Ayrton returning to Ron Dennis, depicted like an overwhelmed
    winning parent on sports-day, and their discussion together are revealed by
    Senna.

    Of
    course there is one monumental problem.
    The Australian Grand Prix took place in Adelaide on November 7th 1993 and
    this heart-to-heart conversation didn’t take place that day. In fact it did not take place at that Grand
    Prix, or any part of the previous Grand Prix in Japan on October 24th.

    The
    footage, described as happening moments before the Australian race, the last
    that Ayrton Senna was to win, or complete, was actually lifted from the
    television series “A Season with
    McLaren” made by John Gau Productions and broadcast, ironically, by the BBC
    in December 1993.

    Their documentary shows that conversation happening at Estoril,
    Portugal, prior to the start of the Grand Prix on September 26th. As the camera pans out to see the Portuguese
    circuit I would be inclined to believe them.

    A Season with
    McLaren was a seven part series of which I own an old VHS copy. I also easily found all parts of it on
    Youtube. Similarly I had little problem
    finding Senna’s writer Manish Pandey
    on the Internet. Pandey is very active
    on the world wide web and has had little hesitation using it as a tool to
    promote his documentary and boast of award nominations and
    accolades.

    Therein it was easy to contact him and ask if he were aware of this
    scene not being from the Australian Grand Prix as stated. The response was amazing. Within 24 hours of posing my question the Season with McLaren

    documentary, showing evidence which contradicts his Senna documentary, was completely
    removed from Youtube.

    There were over a dozen uploads of the particular episode, titled A Man for all Seasons, which could have
    been viewed. Overnight all now showed a
    blank screen featuring an apology and explanation that the video had been
    removed. In some instances ‘Tim Bonython
    Productions’ were listed as claiming the clip featured copyright
    infringements. I suggest if you were to
    delve a little deeper you may find a connection between this production company
    and the Pandey/Kapadia collaboration.

    In
    some countries A Season with McLaren
    was made into a 14 part series and, amazingly, all 13 other parts of this series
    can be readily and abundantly watched online.
    The one exception is the one segment, the one piece of the jigsaw puzzle
    lifted from it and inserted incorrectly into the Senna documentary.

    Regardless I continued to pose my questions to Pandey but the emails
    and tweets remained unanswered.
    Ultimately I pointed out the inaccuracies on the bottom of a blog, which
    waxed lyrical at Senna’s vast array
    of awards, written by Formula 1 journalist Adam Cooper who boasts attending
    every F1 GP since Japan in 1994. This
    too disappeared within the space of hours and Cooper promptly blocked me from
    following his Twitter updates for good measure.

    With
    a BAFT award for Best Editing and another for Best Documentary accepted by Senna’s makers I continued to ask myself
    if this disappearing segment of “A Season
    with McLaren” was coincidence.
    Personally it would not sit well with me accepting an award for
    journalism knowing part of my story was a lie.

    In
    April of this year I took myself off to Brighton where the Senna’s makers were staging a BAFTA
    Masterclass – explaining what it takes to make a BAFTA winning documentary –
    strangely, possibly understandably with a camera in hand, I was refused
    admission and refused the right to pose questions to Pandey or
    Kapadia.

    …and then, as if out
    of the blue, a tweet from Pandey in essence stating: “Ron Dennis was
    cool about us compressing Portugal footage with that from Japan and you should
    be too”.

    A confession that this was no innocent editorial mistake but a
    deliberate distortion of the truth which was justified because it was sanctioned
    by Ron Dennis?

    It is an act which left me, a paying cinema goer, defrauded. Universal Pictures are no different to a
    corporation such as the BBC. When they
    take peoples money they too have a responsibility to the living, dead and paying
    audience.

    The BBC’s out-of-sequence documentary never made it before a viewing
    audience yet it led to an enquiry, naming, shaming and resignations. Senna’s makers have happily collected awards
    and made a lot of money on the back of their out-of-sequence flick.

    Values such as
    fair play, decency and even the truth clearly count for little in this modern
    televisual era but, at the end of the day, after Manish Pandey has
    polished his vast array of accolades and awards, he has to sleep at
    night. I wish him well with that.

    There is a quote from Ayrton Senna in Senna: “If you no longer go for a gap
    you are no longer a racing driver”. I
    declare if you no longer document the truth in chronological order you are no
    longer a documentary maker.

    Should you wish to
    see the Portuguese Dennis/Senna conversation you can do so by clicking here:
    http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XMjQzODMyOTk2.html skip one advert and
    move forward 14.30sec. It would appear
    the removal of this A Season with McLaren
    is, thankfully, out of reach due to its oriental
    origin.

    Should you wish to
    see that same conversation happening weeks later at a different Grand Prix (as
    depicted in Senna) you can do so
    here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uUEl58xsrH4&feature=relmfu 29.30sec

    Pandey’s next
    screenplay is based on the relationship between 1958 F1 champion Mike Hawthorn,
    Peter Collins and Enzo Ferrari. It is
    currently being finalised.