The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Another first class movie about a sport I don’t care about

with 21 comments

OK, this is getting repetitive. This is the third time in a week that I, who claim that have no interest in sports whatsoever, watch a sport themed film and end up loving it.

My credibility is falling. Sorry.

The thing is that motor sports leave me ice cold. It’s beyond my grasp why someone would like to watch extremely noisy cars doing the same round 60 times in a row. How do you even keep them apart? They all look the same.

And what’s there to admire about the guys who drive them? If they ever get wet, it’s not by sweat but by champagne, which they love to poor over themselves instead of drinking it. (Which I guess is a good thing, they’re trying to put up an example there. Don’t drink and drive!) They seem to be fearless, not to say stupid, risking their lives on a daily basis. But is that a good thing? And as with all material depending sports you may ask who the true competitor and sportsman is – the one who holds the steering wheel or the mechanic in the background? In the end I’ve always assumed it’s about money and possibly some weird blood thirst deep down, since the crashes is what brings the drama and nerve to it.

Praise at Kermode
I knew nothing about Formula One before I watched Senna and obviously I had never ever heard of the guy whose life it depictures, the Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna, who won the world championships three times before dying in an accident in 1994.

The idea to watch a documentary about car racing wouldn’t have occurred to me if it wasn’t for my reoccurring critic darling Mark Kermode. While being as much of an opponent to motor sports as I am, he sang his praise for this film on several occasions last year and was quite upset when the Academy didn’t include it in their short list of documentaries eligible for the Oscar.

Ever since I heard about it the first time in his podcast, I’ve been waiting for it to come up in a theatre near me. I thought chances would be fair since my country has a story from the past of our own famous Formula One driver, Ronnie Peterson. He died in an accident in 1978 and caused headlines equivalent to if the World War 3 had broken out. Maybe something of our old connection to this sport still would linger? But apparently not. Perhaps our interest in Formula One died with our one star driver. In any case someone must have decided that Senna wouldn’t sell any tickets in Sweden, so I had to wait until it turned up in my video rental store.

I’m glad I finally got to see it though, because it turned out that Kermode was right.

Archive footage
Senna is a very well made documentary and one of my two favourites from 2011 (the other one being This is Not a Film). I can’t quite pinpoint what’s so good about this film, but I think might have to do with that the story is told through archive footage. There are some interviews with people sharing memories from the time, but you only hear the voices. It gives a feeling of authenticity.

Of course I realize that the script of a documentary film is just as carefully elaborated as the one of any feature movie. You build up a story in a certain way, you present conflicts to make it more interesting, you assign heroes and villains and you pace it in such a way that you’ll make sure to keep the viewer alert and invested all the way through. Senna does all this, but you never feel manipulated, not for a second. Everything feels natural and genuinely true, which is one of the reasons why it’s so good.

Hard to watch
I admit that I was a bit of a mess as the credits started to roll. The last 20 minutes of the film, including the footage from the crash, are hard to watch. I knew all along that he was going to die; nevertheless it took me hard. And what really made it burst for me was watching his antagonist for many years, the racing driver Alain Proust, carrying the coffin and learning about what Senna had meant to the people in Brazil. He gave them hope. He gave the one thing in their life that was fun. And eventually he gave them of his money, founding a charity that until this day has helped 12 million poor children to a better life.

Senna inspires me, not to go into Formula One racing, but to become a better person and make a difference to the world with my life. That’s quite an achievement for a documentary about a sport I don’t care about in the first place.

And I can only agree that it’s incomprehensible that Senna didn’t get an Academy nomination. But then again, I suppose that the Academy like the Formula One scene is a place where you don’t always understand the decisions, since they ultimately are decided by politics. Oh, the irony.

Senna (Asif Kapadia, UK, 2011) My rating: 5/5

Written by Jessica

January 19, 2012 at 5:44 pm

Posted in Senna

21 Responses

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  1. Race car drivers sweat a ton…those cars produce a ton of heat and the G-forces require a lot of muscle to push back against. Anyway, I have at times been a pretty big fan of auto racing…I’ve attended a few races even and probably even more just loved playing racing video games, the genre of gaming I was best at after music games. So I was a little more the natural market for this doc which is my second favorite of the year behind Waste Land. Happy to hear it works so well even without the direct subject matter interest though. I think Senna should work for anyone who has an interest in humans because it is a story about humans, who happen to drive cars really fast.


    January 19, 2012 at 5:51 pm

    • Yes, actually my view on the sport has changed quite a bit after watching this doc. I can see more of the fascination for it. I’d better beware or I might get interested for real. 😉


      January 19, 2012 at 10:35 pm

  2. Well said. I’m glad you loved this too, after seeing Senna’s story you can understand a little why people love watching cars go around in circles for hours 🙂

    Bonjour Tristesse

    January 19, 2012 at 7:20 pm

    • Actually I can. I probably should add also that I’ve always been interested in people doing extreme things. Like mountaineering and such. People who seek up death hazards. And Senna obviously has a bit of that.


      January 19, 2012 at 10:38 pm

  3. If you’re interested in yet /another/ sports movie, I highly recommend Fire in Babylon ( ). It’s a documentary about the West Indian cricket team, and how their rise to be one of the world’s greatest cricket teams paralleled the civil rights movement and the fight against apartheid.

    It’s surprising how well they managed to make a stereotypically-boring sport like cricket seem exciting, fast-paced, and dangerous. (Then again, the way the West Indians played then, it really was quite dangerous.)


    January 19, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    • Well now that I’m on a sport roll I probably should! I’m pretty fascinated by cricket, although it seems even more incomprehensible than baseball. But I like the style of it. A gentlemans sport.


      January 19, 2012 at 10:58 pm

  4. Your reaction to F1 reminds me so much of my mother’s reaction. She used to get annoyed of me while I was glued to the screen watching those races. “50-60 rounds to the same circuit. Even the thought makes me dizzy” she used to say 😀 and she hated that noise too. But seriously, after watching Senna you must have got some idea of that. He was a legend and always will be. I really love that so many people say that don’t know much about F1how much they liked it.


    January 19, 2012 at 10:34 pm

    • I think I’ve moved away a bit from your mother in my view tbh. I can more see the fascination for it, now that I know a little bit more. I definitely think that Senna can help to introduce more people to it. Perhaps even your mum. 🙂


      January 19, 2012 at 11:00 pm

  5. 5/5? Good to hear it! I still have to view this one myself, and I have absolutely no interest in racing either. Looking forward to it!

    Good review Jessica!

    Matt Stewart

    January 19, 2012 at 10:37 pm

    • Thank you! Yes, I was astonished at how much I liked it. Obviously there’s no guarantee you’ll be as crazy about it as I am. I think it helped a bit that I’m interested in people pushing their limits. But even if you aren’t it’s a very well made doc. Noone can take away that from it.


      January 19, 2012 at 10:39 pm

  6. LOVED this one. My favourite film of last year. Like you, I don’t care much for F1, but I was in tears at the end of this film. In fact, tears probably isn’t the right way of describing it – I was literally crying just as much as I did when I saw Requiem for a Dream (which was a lot). What I loved most is how it didn’t really feel like a documentary, and it was all archive footage – the editing was great! It is so sad that it didn’t make the shortlist at the Oscars. I really can’t understand the logic behind that.


    January 20, 2012 at 2:45 am

    • Yay, another fan! I hadn’t expected to cry as much as I did. But crying isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a movie.


      January 20, 2012 at 10:00 am

  7. I used to watch Formula 1 a lot around the time Senna raced and watched his final race live. It’s a moment you really won’t forget as it took so long before there was any clarity about his health. This documentary was stunning and glad to read you liked it as much as well.


    January 20, 2012 at 9:09 am

    • You were there? Ouch. It must have been really sad and even shocking. I was glad though to learn that this sport apparently has become a lot safer now and that there hasn’t been any death in it for many years now.


      January 20, 2012 at 10:02 am

      • No, wasn’t there, but I did watch it live on TV and it was very shocking as he was my favorite driver.


        January 20, 2012 at 10:08 am

  8. SENNA is amazing. A true master piece. OK it was a little one sided, but that is fine with me. It is still a great film

    Nice write up matey

    Scott Lawlor

    January 20, 2012 at 11:33 am

    • Thanks! It’s true that it’s telling the story of Senna and if you’d made a film from Proust’s point of view, it would proabably have given quite a different perspective. But that’s life. All documentaries are somehow “subjective” I think. You need to pick an angle.


      January 20, 2012 at 11:35 am

  9. I’m so glad you loved this Jessica. Like Kermode I was championing this film all year – ever since I saw it in June. It was my #1 film of the year – and easily the best cinematic experience of the year. I saw it at a Film Festival and was amongst an awesome crowd. I find it incredible how this film transcends the sport – and presents Senna not only as a a sporting icon, but as a national hero. His achievements were incredible (and I was brought to tears during both his win in Brazil, and his funeral) and this film features not only masterclass editing, but also flawless storytelling through the footage. Even a viewer with no interest in F1 will be moved by this exhilarating film. I love it.

    Andrew Buckle

    January 21, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    • It’s really wonderful. I’m a bit bummed I watched it after making my top list of 2011. But again I couldn’t wait until I’ve caught up on everthing, then I’d never get my list finished.

      The win in Brazil also brought me to tears. It wasn’t just the death and funeral. There were many touching moments.


      January 21, 2012 at 3:25 pm

  10. Oh, the irony indeed! Great write up, Jessica! I saw the film this weekend and my review will come up later today.

    Not to be picky about details, but I really think that F1 drivers are sweaty. The G-force is tremendous and they need to have elite strength in their neck and upper body to be able to remain conscious in the most tight bends…


    April 24, 2012 at 11:05 am

    • You are right. It probably takes a good physiology to withstand those forces. Glad you remembered my post!


      April 24, 2012 at 4:06 pm

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