A man turned in his theater seat and announced to the woman sitting next to him that he was preparing to get emotional during this screening, and that he might even cry.
The screening was that of The Warrior director Asif Kapadia’s new documentary Senna at IFC Center in Manhattan—the second film in Raphaela Neilhausen and Thom Powers’ Stranger than Fiction documentary series—and it drew something of a mixed crowd: documentary fans, series pass holders, and inquisitive Formula One racing devotees.
After a brief introduction by host Powers, the curtains were shut in front of the screen, then pulled back again, and the movie began. The audience was literally driven through Ayrton Senna’s racing life, beginning with go-karts in his early teens, and through his Formula One races—the first of which he won on the track, but the decision was made, based on a technicality, to call it in favor of Alain Prost, a future rival of Senna’s.
The filmmakers, director Kapadia, and writer Manish Pandey, took a cinematic approach to the story, letting the footage of Senna speak for itself, with little in the way of commentary or voice-overs. We watched Senna’s life on the track and off: his races won and lost, his humanitarian efforts, his Brazilian pride, and his relationship with God.
Toward the end of the film, that ill-fated May Day in 1994 at the San Marino Grand Prix, most of the audience, even those of us unfamiliar with Mr. Senna, knew what was to come. Senna’s sister, Vivienne, recalled that, prior to his final race, Senna had opened his Bible and read a passage that promised him the greatest gift of all: being with God. Some audience members leaned forward, some mouths hung open, faces lit by the flickering screen: we waited for it, it came, and it was over.
The credits rolled, the curtains were shut over the screen again, and Powers welcomed an auto sports journalist named Tom O’Keefe to join him down in front and answer a few questions. O’Keefe spoke about the film taking seventeen years to come to fruition, and referred specifically to a failed attempt at a biopic starring Antonio Bandares, who, he admitted, bore a physical resemblance to Senna. But evidently, Senna’s family, friends, and fans agreed that nobody could play Ayrton Senna except Ayrton Senna.
O’Keefe went on to talk about the exhaustive research the filmmakers did, pouring over hundreds of hours of footage of Senna’s races, both the at the Formula One archives and in Brazil. “This is as close as you’re going to get to hearing his story,” O’Keefe said. “Although there is a lot of left out, naturally. And there is a five-hour version of the film that in my dreams will come out in a special DVD.”
The only trace of criticism for Senna came when Mr. O’Keefe pointed out that, as we saw in the film, he could occasionally act like a “spoiled brat” in the driver’s meetings. O’Keefe spoke about Senna’s rivalry with Alain Prost, his strength as a wet driver, and the conspiracy theories surrounding his death. “There was a big investigation that went on for years,” he said. “There are all sorts of conspiracy theories, there is footage from different cameras as to what happened.” The filmmakers made no attempt to address the investigation in the film. “Maybe they just threw their hands up at 104 minutes. That whole investigation—where the car is, and the helmet is still a little bit of a mystery.”
Calling Senna a “sportsman of the highest order,” O’Keefe tried to explain why he was still so admired, even though other Formula One drivers had died on the track. “He had other dimensions and a breadth that I think most drivers didn’t have,” he said. “And he went out at the top of his profession for sure. He certainly had every up and down that anyone would ever want in life. He won, he lost.”
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The riveting, emotional Senna will be theatrically released in the United States August 12.