With the 18th annual Sheffield Doc/Fest having now wrapped, realscreen looks at some of the UK festival’s most eagerly attended titles, including Asif Kapadia’s archival masterpiece Senna (pictured).
There are a lot of reasons why Senna – Asif Kapadia’s Sundance-winning documentary about the late, great Brazilian F1 driver Ayrton Senna (pictured above) – shouldn’t work.
For a start, director Asif Kapadia comes from a fiction background, with little experience in docs. Add to that the fact that production houses Working Title and Universal also rarely venture into the factual realm. And then there’s an issue in the main thrust of the driver’s life being already well known, including its tragic ending.
Yet in spite of this, every element of Senna comes together perfectly to make the film one of the year’s strongest documentaries.
The main reason for the film’s success is the strength of the archive footage Kapadia and his team have been able to acquire. Having secured the cooperation of F1 kingpin Bernie Ecclestone and his considerable archive of race material, the team had access to a wealth of private moments from across the racing driver’s life – private meetings with other racers, press conferences, interviews, and audio and video from within Senna’s cockpit.
The access is mesmerising. Occasionally, when watching an all-archive doc, there may be a few moments when a viewer says, “I can’t believe they actually captured this moment on film.” Senna overflows with such moments. And such is the quality of the material that the entire film consists of archive, with not one talking head throughout.
Beyond the superb footage however, the real joy of Senna is in the editing. The film blasts through its 106-minute running time like a breezy docu-drama; a mixture of fresh and archival audio interviews with figures from throughout Senna’s life serving as narration.
And of course, there is the man himself. Charismatic, interesting, handsome and arguably the greatest F1 driver to have ever lived, Ayrton Senna lights up the screen in almost every shot of the film, captivating and entertaining in equal measure; the film’s final act is heartbreaking and emotional.
Senna was one of a number of Sundance picks playing at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest, with others including James Marsh’s Project Nim and Ian Palmer’s Knuckle (pictured below).
The latter film looks at the little-covered world of bare-knuckled boxing matches among traveller communities in Ireland, and has been optioned by HBO, which is reportedly looking to develop the doc into a drama series.
Knuckle sees Palmer spending more than 11 years following two different clans of Irish gypsies – the McDonaghs and their cousins the Joyces. Having been invited by the McDonagh family to videotape a wedding in 1997, the director stumbled across a long-simmering feud between the two families that periodically erupts into organized, high-stakes, bloody fist fights.
The footage throughout the film is of varying quality, ranging from worn VHS tapes to decent fresh footage, but some key scenes are frustratingly missing. Important characters are reticent to talk, the filmmaker is barred from attending one crucial brawl, and at times a little more exposition would help immeasurably.
Still, the film is fantastic, and a mesmerising experience to watch – albeit a difficult one to recommend. Violent and sad, with little in the way of resolution at the end, it will certainly not be for everyone. Nevertheless, Palmer offers an insight into a world few get to see, and the incomprehensible nature of that world carries a merit of its own.
Finally, travelling a short distance across the Irish sea to the realm of Scotland, Doc/Fest hosted the UK premiere of Anthony Baxter’s You’ve Been Trumped (pictured below), which also won the Sheffield Green Award at the festival.
The film, which had its world premiere last month at Hot Docs in Toronto, looks at the efforts by American billionaire and Apprentice host Donald Trump and his son to build the world’s most opulent golf complex in Aberdeen, complete with 450 bed hotel and two huge golf courses.
Protesting this construction are a number of local residents, who are threatened with compulsory purchase orders by the plan. The doc initially takes some time to get going, with early scenes of residents complaining and Trump campaigning offering little and dragging out.
However, once Trump has been granted planning permission to begin building his course, the doc quickly gains pace, with some truly shocking footage showing the bully tactics from hired construction workers and, seemingly, from local police.
At the film’s centre is the violent, unprovoked arrest of the director, amazingly captured on film. Other footage also shocks, including that of Trump’s workers cutting off the water supply of several residents who have refused to sell their homes, an act that Trump’s team maintained was accidental.
While the filmmakers have no qualms about showing which side they are on, they do occasionally veer into heavy-handedness – the overstated score from Sigur Ros’s Jónsi being once such instance. For the most part however, the footage speaks for itself.
In a Q&A after the doc’s premiere in Toronto, Baxter told attendees that when he was making the film, “no broadcaster would touch it,” with similar rejection from arts funds such as Creative Scotland.
In the end he and his team turned to more than 200 crowdfunders, whose varied donations helped raise more than $20,000 for postproduction to complete the film.
A sign of the times, no doubt. Regardless, Baxter has done a fantastic job of bringing an important local story to the fore, representing the local folk who aren’t getting the rub of the green.