By Samera Hassan
A documentary about a Formula One driver? Yes, I was sceptical too. The posters on the Underground didn’t help- a man in a bright yellow helmet in one of those ghastly noisy F1 cars wasn’t exactly the image I associated with an entertaining evening at the cinema. Nonetheless, I went, and found myself completely blown away by one of the best documentaries I have ever seen.
The film follows the career of Brazilian Formula One driver, Ayrton Senna, who rises from obscurity to become one of the most successful drivers in history, ruffling a fair few feathers along the way. The documentary uses interviews with Senna, racing footage, and voiceover commentaries by friends and family to tell the story of a spectacular life- albeit a short one. Senna died in a crash on the race track in 1994, aged 34.
What was almost immediately clear about Senna was that it wasn’t really about Formula One at all, but rather about one man’s quest to achieve union with God through the medium of racing. A deeply religious man, Ayrton Senna’s interviews are peppered with references to the closeness to God he experiences in races and how winning races are a direct gift from the Creator. These statements, interspersed with racing footage from Senna’s own helmet camera, give the viewer a very literal image to accompany the metaphorical journey on the road to God.
Ayrton Senna is portrayed in the documentary as an exceptional man- strikingly handsome, articulate, softly spoken, intelligent, with a deep attachment to his family and his native country of Brazil. This is in contrast to those with whom he clashes in the course of his career- Alain ‘The Professor’ Prost, whose meticulously mathematical approach to point scoring jars against Senna’s more wild attitude, and the President of the FIA, Jean- Marie Balestre, who comes across as a belligerent old Frenchman with a clear bias in favour of his compatriot drivers. The scene is set for drama and rivalry that seems too cinematically perfect to be real, enhanced by the knowledge that tragedy is lurking around the next bend.
Crashes were occurring with alarming frequency in the days leading up to Senna’s own death, crashes which he would always scramble onsite to see for himself and which subsequently shook his own confidence. On the morning of his own death, his sister reported that Senna, seeking God’s guidance, opened up the Bible on a random but monumentally timely passage. I don’t want to spoil it by repeating the passage but it had me in tears. The seeker, it seemed, had finally found what he was seeking.
It came as no surprise to see a Muslim name, Asif Kapadia, under the title of ‘director’ in the closing credits. This is a documentary with a huge heart, with an awareness and respect of the spiritual motivations underpinning Senna’s desire to succeed both on and off the race track. It touches and inspires in ways that documentaries rarely manage. A must- see.
Samera Hassan is a PhD candidate at the University of Sussex, specialising in Early Modern English Literature. She is the Editor of Culture at The Platform.
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