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On Your Radar: SENNA
by Karen Pecota

The dream of a documentary filmmaker is to have to their avail several hours of raw film footage that supports their principle subject. The raw footage is a key factor during the editing process that will eventually draw the audience to the topic and make the story compelling enough for a wide distribution. Filmmaker and director, Asif Kapadia was one of the lucky filmmakers to have oodles of archive material handed to him on a silver platter for his epic masterpiece SENNA. Kapadia could have never developed the SENNA project with the richness the story deserved working on it alone. He was grateful to those who made the miracle of the project possible: Ayrton Senna’s family, Formula One Organization and the Ayrton Senna Institute. The family was instrumental is giving their permission for the documentary to be made about Ayrton’s life and Formula One gave permission to use hours of unseen archive film footage. Kapadia collaborated with screenwriter Manish Pandey and together they made a memorable tribute to a young man who left this earth too early. The premise of their documentary was the tragic story about Brazilian Ayrton Senna, a world class champion legend that raced high performance cars for Formula One’s (F1) world class competition championships.

Kapadia was hired as the director of the film for his expertise and passion about filmmaking; but, more so because he brought to the table almost no knowledge of the racing sport. This advantage was that he could capture the essence of his storytelling so that those who did not know anything about the sport would be in awe of the pastime and its primary figures. The angle worked!

The Brazilian, Ayrton Senna, got his start, as a teenager, racing go-karts in competitions all over Europe. Senna attributes his knack for conquering the high performance race track with the skills and training he learned from handling go-karts. In 1984, Senna began his high performance racing career and frequently won on the track but because of his moral obligations to truth-telling and fighting against injustices of the sport he faced many battles off the track. In spite of his struggles, his ten year career won him three World Champion titles and world fame as a driver for Formula One and later, McLaren. Senna was often characterized as a whiz kid in the sport and holding to deep spiritual beliefs that dictated his life. He was all about training, training, training, and never giving up--a will that took him to his early grave. In the third race of the 1994 racing season at the Imola track in San Marino, there were too many uncanny things happening to the drivers during the qualifying heets including the instant death of Austrian Roland Ratzenberger. Senna was shaken up pretty bad over the mishaps of his colleagues. He addressed his concerns at the drivers committee meeting but it was dismissed as nonsense. Senna was upset and he terribly worried about the official race. Senna’s friend who was also the F1 doctor advised him not to race; but, Senna did not want to let his team down so he tried to overcome his fears and entered the race. He had the Austrian flag in his car ready to fly after his win in memory of his colleague who had died the day before only he never got the chance.

SENNA won the World Cinema Audience Award for Documentary at Sundance. The film had a standing ovation at SXSW (South By South West film festival) in Austin, Texas, and won the Audience prize for Best International Feature at the Los Angeles Film Festival.