Asif Kapadia: “Docs are a psychological pressure”

Critically-acclaimed filmmaker Asif Kapadia started his directing career in 2001 but is perhaps best known for his innovative documentary Senna, which he later followed with Amy, a powerful portrait of the late soul singer Amy Winehouse.

Kapadia grew up in Hackney and made his feature directorial debut in 2001 with historical drama The Warrior. He had in fact also co-written a much smaller movie set in Hackney, but it didn’t generate the same interest as The Warrior. Kapadia ended up directing his first feature in Hindi on location in rural India.

The filmmaker has arguably enjoyed greater success for his documentaries. Senna and Amy have deftly showcased Kapadia’s ability to switch between fiction and documentary production.

Senna tells the story of iconic Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna, who won a trio of World Championships before his tragic death in an accident at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. 

Kapadia decided to jettison the traditional talking-heads interview approach to the documentary format, where people with knowledge of the subject give a filmed interview. Instead, Senna was made exclusively with archive footage.

“Senna was hard in a different way to fiction features,” said Kapadia at the recent Screen Film Summit. “Fiction films are a physical pressure because you have several hundred crew waiting for you to make a decision. 

“Documentaries are more psychological, and you work with only a small core team. It’s a different pressure because you’re sourcing archive footage from all over the world and you often just have to trust that the right angles will show up somewhere and help you complete a scene.”


Defending a vision

Effective sound design became a particularly critical element of Senna’s success because the archive footage was all filmed before 1994 and so the visuals lacked polish. The documentary also became a good lesson in “knowing when to argue and when to compromise”, as Kapadia faced stiff resistance to his plan to avoid featuring interviews.

Senna was a huge critical success and Kapadia repeated the feat with Amy. The film has become a massively successful box office hit and also won numerous awards, including Best Documentary at the European Film Awards and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, and Documentary of the Year at the Hollywood Film Awards. The success of Amy has helped raise the profile of the documentary form.

When Kapadia started work in 2015 on his new fiction feature Ali and Nino, a cross-cultural romance set in Azerbaijan just before the First World War, Kapadia found he needed to remind himself of the rules of fiction filmmaking. At that stage it had been seven years since his last fiction production. 

“It’s important to be bold and creative,” Kapadia finishes. “At the end, it’s always the central idea that will elevate the material.”


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