Portraits of Obsession – the films of Asif Kapadia

Annie Mullineux

Asif Kapadia is a methodical documentarian – a collector of the essence of what it is to be at the centre of your own constellation. With his last three documentaries – Diego Maradona, in cinemas now, Amy (2015) about genius musician Amy Winehouse and Senna (2010)  genius racing car driver – Kapadia homes in on what qualities may make a person predisposed to a life of fame, and what this life - completely centred around you, your talent and your actions - affects the psyche.

Senna is at its heart a film about belief. Belief in a God-given talent; belief in justice; belief in immortality in the face of the severe, and self-inflicted danger that comes with Race Car Driving. Ayrton Senna, three-time winner of the F1 World Championship, was always imbued with an assuredness in his ability to win and the importance of doing so. In the film, Ayrton comments that “Pure driving, pure racing – that makes me happy”. In this way, Senna’s personality is inextricable from his talent – we get little impression of what life is to him if it isn’t driving, and in this sense, it is as truthful a portrait of a sports star almost deified for his talent – there is nothing else.

There is a masterful use of archive footage in these films. They are mostly image driven, but testimony holds bearing on the film, especially when it comes from the subject themselves. What also swirls around this understanding of the individual, and what really cements Kapadia’s films as investigations into the dynamics of fame, are the fact that so much of what surrounds these snapshots is others’ opinions and observations on the ‘real’ Ayrton; the ‘real’ Amy. We hear from people that spent time in their periphery, or worked with them, who they think these stars really were away from the public eye.

Towards the beginning of Kapadia’s portrait of Senna, Ron Dennis (his McLaren team manager) remarks that “[in] Ayrton’s early career, what was very apparent was his pace and dedication. But in the end, what you’re looking for is an intellect, and I thought, ‘This guys got what it takes’.” Amy Winehouse’s pianist states that “she had one of the most pure relationships to music, such an emotional relationship to music. Like she needed music, as if it was a person, and she would die for it.” These testimonies intend to describe obsessions greater than words, arguably indefinable by someone who isn’t experiencing them. What Kapadia’s documentaries are aiming to do is bring us, the audience, closer to experiencing the intangible.

There is something increasingly intimate about the way Kapadia forms a portrait of a star by interweaving images the public already possess – concerts, races, games, interviews – with behind-the-scenes or candid snapshots of their lives. It enables the audience to understand the dichotomy of their private and public lives, and how this split has a real effect on the way they navigate their careers and define themselves.

In both Amy and Senna, a large majority of the footage centres on the artists deep in their craft. In Senna, cockpit footage from his races is necessary to get into the have-to-win mindset. To tell the story of his career, by showing how his talent carries him above and beyond his competition with first-person footage of these wins, is enough to bring us into his head. His cars speed through the film as quickly as he ascended to his massive level of fame. When the audience hear him say that “you are competing to win – if you no longer go for a gap, then you are no longer a racing driver”, the essence of his obsession with competition, and being better than it, shines through.

It is the footage that we are shown of Amy in the studio, that really makes evident that her obsession with living truthfully is by far and away best expressed through her music. Clandestinely watching footage of Winehouse record Back to Black, the instrumental weaving in and out of the words she is so obviously and painfully still feeling, feels as if it’s reaching to the core of her obsession with the craft – her need for it as catharsis.

The aspects of transcendence that both Ayrton Senna and Amy Winehouse cling to throughout their careers – the power of God for the former, the retreat of alcohol and drugs for the latter – shows that, for them, obsession must be tempered through an intermediate power. With Senna about to win the 1988 Championship, on his last lap, he “felt His presence. [He] visualised, [he] saw God” and consistently talks throughout the documentary about how racing brings him closer to God and how his relationship to God brings him closer to victory. It’s this spreading of the burden of genius, which Winehouse unfortunately finds in self-destruction, that makes Kapadia’s explorations of obsession, fame and talent so emotional to watch.


Annie is a Programming & Curation student at the National Film and Television school and a major non-fiction film enthusiast. 

Find her on twitter @anniemation_ or @filmisfine on Instagram. 

Image credit: SENNA, dir Asif Kapadia (2010), Universal Pictures

Credit to ScreenArgyll