Fresh from his success at the BAFTAs, Senna director Asif Kapadia talks to Dermot O’Rourke about the life and times of a motorracing great and the ever-evolving role of the documentary film-maker

With the line between what is real and what is fictional in films continuing to blur, it is now, more than ever, more difficult to differentiate between the two. Indeed, it is increasingly common to see fictional films employ a documentary aesthetic in an attempt at a visual grounding in the authentic. It seems nowadays, however, that stories no longer need to be fictionalised for mainstream audiences to enjoy. In recent years there has been an abundance of high quality documentaries that are finding their cinematic voice in intensified character portraits, rooted in the actual, and away from the shallow mediocrity of Hollywood’s recent standards.

Archetypical of this recent catalogue of pioneering documentaries is the highest grossing documentary of last year and recent winner of the BAFTA award for Best Documentary (and, just as pertinently, the University Observer’s film of the year for 2011), Senna. Senna is the story of Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian-born, three-times Formula One motor racing world champion and prominent philanthropist, who tragically died in a racing accident during qualification at the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola in 1994.

Senna was as polarising and enthralling a figure as has ever been enshrined in motor racing lore, and the director of Senna, Asif Kapadia, is as gripped by the individuality of Ayrton Senna as much as the public were when he was in his prime. “All his layers; that’s what made him so amazing as a character. He was not a one-dimensional sports person … he was a genius at what he did and he was an intelligent and eloquent guy.”

Kapadia admits, however, that he didn’t know much about Ayrton Senna or even Formula One before going into the project. “I’m not the world’s most knowledgeable person on Formula One, and I didn’t come into the film as the world’s biggest Senna fan, so I was quite impartial, and my job was to look at the material and say ‘how do we make this into the best movie that we can?’”

Senna was Kapadia’s first documentary film, and his past experience has in fact been in fictive film. He has previously directed award-winning fiction such as The Sheep Thief and the winner of Best British Film of 2002 at the BAFTAs, Warrior, but was drawn into the production by the character of Senna. “The more I looked at the material I couldn’t believe how much footage existed, and then it was the fact there was so much drama in so many of the scenes. Senna is so passionate and charismatic and there’s something about him; he’s got this energy about him. Whenever he’s in a room there is something going on and when he opens his mouth he has something interesting to say.”

Kapadia’s experience in fictive filmmaking is reflected in the narrative of Senna, which plays out as a cinematic drama, rather than the non-judgmental observation with the usual talking heads, narration and voice-over we’ve come to expect from TV documentaries. There are heroes for the audience to root for and villains to hiss at. The film gives a representation of reality rather than a reproduction of it. “It’s not called Formula One: Impartial Opinion, it’s like a movie. In a movie you have a lead character and your story is to tell their journey, to tell their story in the best possible way. You don’t watch Indiana Jones and say ‘I don’t think you were very fair on that bad guy.’”

What is truly innovative in Senna is that every single piece of the film is archival footage. Kapadia trawled through 16,000 hours of footage – an astonishing 625 days altogether – to construct the film. “I couldn’t believe how much footage existed … so, for me, it seemed obvious very early on that we should make the film out of the footage that already exists.” This was an unprecedented undertaking and took approximately three years to edit it down to a manageable one hundred-minute film. “When you have an instinct, and you think this is the right way to do it, it’s not always the easiest task, and along the way there are a lot of doubts. A lot of people said ‘This is not going to work’, ‘It doesn’t work’, ‘Everyone tries to do documentaries like this and it doesn’t work.’”

Constructing the film entirely from found footage does mean that Kapadia did not contribute any of his own shots into the piece, and without directing the film’s subjects or deciding on the camera position or lighting set-up, his role as director was fundamentally altered. “My job on this film was to take myself out of the film,” Kapadia explains. “The easiest thing would have been to shoot interviews and cut them in and say ‘Look, I’m a director, I shot that, look at that lovely plant next to him, look at that interesting lighting that I’ve put on this guy,’ and actually, for me, that would have been one way of doing it to justify my role.” However, Kapadia recognised that his role as the director was, ultimately, to serve the material and use it to craft the possible best film. “Your job as the director is to tell the story in the best possible way, whatever that is, and in this particular case, it meant not putting my own shots in the film because they not would improve on what we already had.”

Senna has been a huge success – both critically and at the box office – and is a movie that has not only been popular among Formula One fans, but is a story with such universal appeal that it has transcended the niche. “Manish Pandey [the writer of the film] was a big Formula One fan, and he wanted to get the facts right so the Formula One people would love it, and they do; they really love it. On the other hand, I wanted the film to work for people who can’t stand sport.” Kapadia himself is a big sports fan, particularly of football, but is all too aware of the clumsiness and general ineptness at which some film-makers tackle sports. It was important to him to take an approach to the film that would not lose the interest of either audience, “and the way to do that was through character. This was a guy who was an amazing character, a passionate man who had really good beliefs, good ideals, who happens to be a racing driver. If you’re into the racing you’re going to be blown away; if you’re not into it, you’re going to understand why other people are, because when you see him drive around Monaco, it’s so visceral, it’s so fast, it’s so scary; then you will understand why people like Formula One, and that’s what happened; people saw that on the cinema screen and were blown away.”

The film recently received two awards at the recent BAFTA ceremony – one for Best Documentary Feature and one for Best Editing. This is the first year that the Best Documentary Feature BAFTA has been awarded since 1989, and is an accolade of which Kapadia is particularly proud. “I’m really pleased about [winning the BAFTA], and I’m really happy to be the first to win it since it has come back, because it was missed, it was a black hole in the BAFTAs for a few years … It’s a really positive thing.” However, the lack of recognition Senna received at the recent Academy Awards – not even making the longlist of nominations – is nothing short of baffling to industry commentators and certainly dissatisfying for the Hackney-born film-maker. “At the time when it happened, it was a bit disappointing. Now, it’s just the way it is … it would have been nice to have been in the top fifteen.”

The re-introduction of the Best Documentary category in the BAFTAs represents a paradigm shift in the medium of documentary films; ensuring that they are now no longer viewed as inferior to fictive films. Documentaries such as Man on Wire have been recognised at the Oscars in recent years and, possibly more importantly, the films have resonated with audiences in cinemas. “There are stories to be told; there is a lot of stuff going on in the world that doesn’t need to be fictionalised. It is much better showing the real footage.” The recent canon of high quality documentary films, including Senna, is challenging our ideals about what we consider to be cinematic in a film. “I think the line between them [fiction films and documentaries] is much narrower now; technically they’re much narrower, and also you can be almost more imaginative with a documentary than most people are with fiction.

“There are a lot of documentaries that are made about war zones or social issues, and I think they are best done in a more intimate way, with a smaller crew and with less money than the Hollywood version … where you get actors to look poor or you get people to dress down. Also, I think documentary film-makers are doing things that are far more interesting than a lot of fiction films.”

Kapadia is in good company, with prominent directors including Paul Greengrass and Martin Scorsese directing both fiction and documentary films, and he is enthused to continue exploring both avenues in the future. “That’s what I would like to do in the future as well – to be able to do both. It’s quite nice to make documentaries in between the machine of fiction film, waiting around for movie stars and waiting around for the script to be ready. It’s nice just to get a camera, go out there and shoot.”