Decoding A Cinematic Wonder 'SENNA'
I would like to take some time to explore a film which has not only achieved critical acclaim upon its release but has also become a substantial box office success. It's subject matter is one held very dearly in the affections of many formula one fans, a majority of which feel it has been dealt with justly and in a fitting manner.
It is also a film which has inspired a new generation of documentary filmmakers. Senna is one of those rare moments in film, it is a majestic piece of cinema which can be categorised as simply brilliant. So I want to delve a little deeper to dissect the construction of a masterpiece.
Directed by Asif Kapadia Written by Manish Pandey
One of the many astonishing thing about SENNA is that it has broken the record for the highest grossing opening weekend obtained by a documentary in British history. It achieved this despite only receiving a limited cinematic release. Takings totalled £375,000 in its opening weekend which put it at six in the overall box office.
Its success continued when it was transferred to DVD as sales surpassed the 700,000 mark. This is an incredible feat for any release, let alone a documentary.
The narrative of the film calls upon tremendously personal and insightful achieve footage and voice over. It chronicles three-time World Champion Ayrton Senna from the initial twinkle of his talent through until his death in 1994 at the hands of a Williams.
I want to look past the story and show the fans that adore this film just how complex and masterfully it has been pieced together. SENNA does not just tell the beautifully tragic story of a legend but it tells it incredibly well. It deserves all accolades sent its way and I hope to show you the reasons why.
The opening titles begin with a montage of shots of a young Senna in his karting years with an accompanying voice over from him in which he describes that time as “…no money, no politics, real racing…” In between titles we are shown an interview with his parents, displaying concern for his safety and asking that God protect him. We are then given casual images of him in the street. Each frame serves to show us a different aspect of his life. His passion for speed, his love for his family and the fact hat he is still just a normal human being. The entire title sequence is indicating to the audience the contents of the film we are about to watch, like an index. It is also very foreboding. All the images are dark as is the title background against the interior of a formula one car. Following our brief introduction, we are thrown straight into action. The archived imagery of interviews and race footage used is mostly close up. This gives us a more personal connection on screen. It’s a convention which will continue throughout the film, granting us a more intimate insight and bringing us closer to the action.
We are then taken to Monaco where Senna, piloting a Toleman car races in the rain. It is shown to us as a critical point in his career but also the content of the frames upon closer inspection appear almost haunting. As he rides in the spray from the track like an angelic chariot blazing to glory. The car is strikingly white as if a spot light were on it. The cars in shot behind become distorted or pale to insignificance. A post race interview refers back to the previous voice over from Ayrton when he describes the sport as “…it’s political and it is money.” The recurring use of similar quotes help guide us as we build an unconscious view of the world around him.
A series of slow motion shots, close ups and interviews blend seamlessly to take us to the next key event in Senna’s life – His race win in the Lotus. The use of fast paced, rapid editing conveys how quickly he became recognised as a rising talent and may also be indicative of his speed on track. An attempt to carry the viewer along and pull them into the action. In contrast, the shots of him the podium have been slowed down. It’s as if he and the audience with him are taking it in. It’s the first real occurrence of us being placed in the mindset of the champion.
More quick paced shots in the Lotus with a voice over. This recurring use of non-diegtic voice over is used to narrative effect and drives the action by guiding the shots and setting the pace.
“There’s only one thing that describes Ayrton’s style and that’s fast”
When he mentions his ability to “dance a dance with the car” the music changes tempo to become more upbeat.
The music ceases as we are given our introduction to the rival, dressed up as the main antagonist of the story, Alain Prost. Slow motion shots give us time to remember his face, he is a vital element and we are required to recognise him. The blinding flashes from the photographers indicate that he is already a star and emphasis his status.
The camera angles selected for the footage of the Mclaren announcement allows us to feel like a spectator in amongst the gathered crowd. We are almost level with them until Senna takes the microphone. The moment he does, the angles are lowered; we look up to him, as many adoring fans did.
During the 1988 interview of Prost and Senna smiling and laughing the narrative voice over returns. It assists the audience in deciphering the power struggle and talks us through the images before us, highlighting potential body language that had previously been unseen by the spectator.
The previous technique is repeated as we see close up interior car shots of Ayrton on the track of Monte Carlo. This voice over however attempts to talk us through his mindset. As Senna impacts into the barriers, the transition to slow motion footage of Prost sailing to victory juxtapositions the two emotions felt. The inter-cutting shots of Alain on the podium and Ayrton walking away amplifies the emotion.
Another voice over to explain the demons he wrestled in his mind guides an interview and a series of fast paced shots of race footage, podium celebrations and close ups of Senna in a still car. The quick pace of the shots displays his progression and the gives us a brief glimpse of his accolades as we are forced to keep up with his success. For the first time shots of the fans are included for the Japanese Grand Prix as the Brazilian flag waves in the air. I believe this inclusion is to make us aware of the growing support he was gathering and the dedication of those supporters.The race is shown using long shots to begin with, the use of these shots represents the distance he had to travel and make up in order to be the victor. As the voice over commentary keeps us updated on his climb up the grid, the shots become shorter and quicker. The shorter shots show us the distance to victory is reducing. In the post race interview Senna describes how he was privy to a vision from God who guided him to victory. We are shown an unsettling piece of footage of the car mid race which almost appears to have wings on either side. The music beats as he crosses the finish line to a dramatic finish. We then see shots of fans and his celebration on the podium in slow motion; again they allow us to take it in with him as if we are part of it.
We find ourselves in Sao Paulo, watching him interacting with the adoring fans and their opinions of him and how he has inspired them. The next selection of footage shown is of him holidaying with his family. These personal scenes help us to feel closer to him, they also give an insight into the man and remind us that is a mortal man with strong family ties. The relaxation he feels washes over us as the audience and we feel, even briefly, connected to him on a personal level.
Tense music plays over shots of Prost and Senna. Including long shots and close ups, the shots aim match each other. Podium for podium, car interior for car interior, the calibre of the two drivers is matched through the use of shots. The voice over eases us from one shot to another whilst guiding the story.
The footage from the drivers’ conference I find particularly interesting at this point. They seem to portray it like a classroom with Senna as the smirking, bored pupil under the harsh discipline of the FIA. Prost plays the teachers pet, obeying and attentive.
We return to the Japanese Grand Prix, the voice over sets the scene for us. We ride on board with Senna as his helmet bops in and out of frame. The interior shots cease with the impact from Prost. The scene intends to place us in his shoes so that when we watch the following scenes we feel we have been wronged as Ayrton would have felt. As Senna returns to the track, intent on finishing the race, we trail Prost. It’s almost like we’ve tipped him as he turns and the pace quickens. This section is very reminiscent of an action film in his structure and editing. As we interchange between Senna in his car and Prost on foot, we sense we are about to reach a dramatic climax.
As we await the decision, Brazilian flags, a pan out of the spectators. The music tenses with Senna’s arrival in the room. We see a close up of Prost and his thoughts and then a close up of Senna and his silence in reflection. The camera pulls back, as if we are gently leaving the room and him alone with his thoughts. The crash itself is then presented to us, in multiple angles and in slow motion, this affords the viewer opportunity to analyse the footage for ourselves.
The next selection of holiday footage we are given is a stark contrast to that previously explored. The shots are engineered as stolen images, fleeting glances as he reflects, alone. A majority of the shots are long shots creating a distance between the audience and Ayrton. Possibly implying the distance he now put between himself and his family. This signals to me, the turning point in the film, a change in pace and colour, matching a change in mindset. This shot I find to personally particularly emotive as we walk with Ayrton as he returns to the pit. We then face conflicting shots of Prost and Senna, in the manner of an edited argument. The next scenes are particularly harrowing. It’s crash footage of Martin Donnelly and the medical attempts to help him as he lies motionless on the track. Although Donnelly survived, the scenes depict the harsh reality of formula one and the consequences of a slip in concentration. As we observe a delicate Senna through a close up, a voice over accompaniment attempts to delve into his mind and relay his inner thoughts to us. It’s as if the words spoken are running through his mind as we watch. The in car footage of Senna out on the track depict a lonely figure, he is out on track alone and no car comes into sight until the last few frames.
Again, the Championship hinges on the result of the Japanese Grand Prix. The voice over relays key information to us before we witness the reading of the race rules in the driver’s conference. The close up and slightly down titled angle of Prost as Senna leaves the room highlight the shift in power from one to another. Through the means of voice over, we are brought up to speed as to the latest hindrance to Senna’s race. The music ups tempo as the cars take their positions on the grid. As our protagonist and antagonist sit in their respective machines, we see a contrast in mood. Prost laughs with a mechanic, Senna sits, focused and still, in his eyes seemingly a little lost.
As the lights go out and Prost steals the position from Senna, we view multiple angles up until the contact. Both cars spin off; Prost walks one way, Senna the opposite direction, almost casually. We are given a long shot of Ayrton alone; this image creates a sense of justice in the viewer. The display of a candid interview only further serves to ‘justify’ the previous incidents for any viewers who may be feeling a sense of injustice on Prost’s part. In it, Senna validates the thoughts of fans/viewers and we, the audience unit for his cause. A second interview with Jackie Stewart is placed in a section and shows Senna fighting back. A stark interview with Prost in which he attacks Senna is placed and selected to show the positions of the two rivals.
At the Brazilian Grand Prix we see long shots of the crowd and accompanying chants from them as we watch in car footage of him on track. A tense, more commanding voice over guides us through each pain staking twist and turn as he battles the car. The chants are drowned out by the screams of Ayrton but we are unclear whether cries of pain or joy. Most likely both. A dramatic conclusion as the edits slow and the pan shots of the fans celebrating grace the screen. The shots of him being prised out of the car watch like post crash recovery as a voice over from Senna himself is heard. The taunt score underlying the scenes of him on the podium becomes more dramatic as he struggles to raise his flag. With the lift of the trophy above his head, the moment is savored in slower paced shots, advising us to savor also and take it in as a significant moment.
I will now jump to what I feel is the most emotive scene in the documentary, it is the interview with Ayrton where he discusses the hope of finding happiness in a time after racing. “….my career could last not many years, but my life will go hopefully for many years…” It’s a subtle warning of events to come subconsciously suggesting the viewer make emotional preparations. It’s a very ominous interview and one which stirs deep emotion as we already know the ending.
The next series of shots selected create an unsettling and sinister undertone. We are given introductory shots of Frank Williams and the Williams garage. The images are much darker than previously seen and the music is more unnerving and tense. The shot of the car moving down by itself I find to be genuinely quite chilling.
After a number of shots caught of Senna and his then-girlfriend and race victories we are given a glimpse of a change in pace for the relationship between our main characters. The shot is of Senna, Prost and a fresh faced Damon Hill celebrating on the podium. All appear to be relaxed in each others company and the shots do not favour one or the other. The scene is played much slower as the poignancy of it becomes evident from the voice over. We are informed that it is the last time Senna raced for Mclaren, Prost for Williams and final image of either of them on the podium.As we watch a close up of Ayrton in the car, the tense score first heard over the titles at the start returns. Its familiarity indicates that we have almost reached the end of our journey. It continues to play gently under the overlapping interviews and voice over as the cars race. The music could be symbolic of the approaching finale, representing the dark fate lying in wait for our protagonist.
Impressive footage of an aerial shot is used as we track the Imola circuit. A long shot of Senna and his engineers surveying the car leads to an extremely close up shot Ayrton. As we view for the first time Friday practice, we realise that almost all the shot of the car are close up. This technique of selecting close up shots helps to draw us into the action. We begin to feel closer to him and the machine, thus making the events unfolding even harder to observe. At this point, I feel that many will begin to experience a conscious willing of him not to get in the car. That moment when you feel yourself shouting at the television for a character not to do something as the fallout from it will not favour them. The voice over falls to the sidelines as we see the frustrated figure Senna cuts in his last days.
We are given brief snippets of both Rubens Barrichello and Roland Ratzenburger, these shots help us to relate the accidents both are involved in and give them a more personal impact, which in turn helps us to relate to Senna’s frame of mind and we can sympathise with how both incidents affected him. Roland’s crash is viewed as if through Senna’s eyes, he watches the footage on a television screen as do we. This method allows us to experience it as he did. The aftermath footage and the long shot of Senna talking to Sid Watkins feels like a stolen moment as we watch from afar.
With the legend ‘Sunday’ the final chapter commences. The Brazilian flag is predominant in the next shot which is followed by close ups of an apprehensive Senna and an observing Prost. The shots used display Prost to be level with our view, suggesting that with his retirement has come a new found respect for Senna or at least the beginnings of a change in attitude towards him. He is therefore presented to us as an equal and no longer a negative element. The voice over from his beloved sister retells one of their final conversations in which he told her that “God would grant him the greatest of gifts” As the protagonist moves into his final position we see a selection of extreme close ups.
On the grid, we watch from the back as Lamy and Lehto collide off the start line. We then ride with Senna before scenes begin to cut between close ups of the car on track, an aerial shot of the track and long shots of the car. Tension mounts as the cuts quicken and we find ourselves fearing each corner until the inevitable happens. The silent aerial view of the crash site lingers as we are given time to take in the events before us. The uncensored imagery stirs disbelief in us as the audience. The silence and duration of the shots grants us moments to reflect and take in. As the shots become closer, chronicling the paramedics attempts to save him, Sid Watkins lends his voice to the shots and describes what he believes to be his soul departing. We follow the helicopter as it soars with the body of Ayrton, it is shown after the voice over so could be symbolic of his soul being carried to kingdom of his lord.
As the car is recovered and driven back to garage, somber voice over debates the reason behind the crash. The covers are thrown over the cars and the garage shutters close, symbolising the end of an era. At his funeral, we see each mourner and are reminded as to their importance in his life with a flashback shot, selected from the images we have already been shown.
The closing scene is touching and an incredibly clever convention – it is an interview with Ayrton in which he recounts his fondest memory which is one of many accrued when spent karting in Europe. As footage is presented to aide with his memory, it quickly becomes apparent that it’s a section of the footage used in the opening titles. The film opened with a “Very good memory” and we reach full circle to its end. The inclusion of this particular interview and the manner in which it has been used creates a ploysemic curtain call. Cinema is a subjective topic and upon reflection, to me this closing sequence leaves me to wonder whether Senna began to regret entering the unforgiving world of Formula One to be consumed by the politics and whether that regret would have led to a potential exit from it had his life continued past that day. Others will take it to be a sad reflection on what would have been, some may not feel any particular significance to it as stand alone section.
When you think of the awards won, remember that each frame has been selected for a purpose, each spoken word and accompanying track fulfils a purpose. Audiences can often be accused of dismissing documentary cinema as a ‘copy and paste’ job but I hope that I have been able to highlight, if only briefly how incorrect that is. Piecing together a full image of a man’s life in film is a challenging feat under normal circumstances, couple that with the man in question, the affection for his legacy and the amount of footage available and the mere fact that SENNA watches like in depth character study or in parts a high octane action thriller is simply incredible.
SENNA will be a vital tool in the preserving of his legend and providing accurate insight into the life and times of one of the most celebrated and talented drivers in Formula One’s history. I give thanks to all those involved in the filmmaking process and all those who were strong enough to go against the grain and support its development and release; it has inspired enthusiasm and reignited passion for those in the documentary genre as well as generating an increased fan base for the sport.
I view the update of the upcoming Hollywood foray into the sport with a jaded outlook. Although Ron Howard is a very capable and talented filmmaker and Lauda’s story is one certainly worthy of telling and full of inspiration, I fear the passion and realism will be lost in the studio’s need for bums on seats. Cruelly cast aside in favour of on track action with no real meaning or truth. Perhaps I will be proven wrong, I would like to think so. One thing is for sure, Ron Howard has a steep hill to climb if he wants to surpass the achievements, acclaim and love for SENNA . He will certainly be harshly judged if he cannot rise to the challenge.
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