ASIF KAPADIA was born in 1972 in Hackney to Muslim parents, well before the area’s gentrification commenced. He originally studied graphic design before moving towards film-making, attending both the University of South Wales (as it now is) and the University of Westminster, and then the Royal College of Art.
His first film, The Warrior (2001), shot in Rajasthan, was a feature not a documentary – which is the form Kapadia has subsequently become known for – and its subject was a violent man who renounces violence and then suffers violence because of it.
After he watched The Warrior, which won two Baftas in 2003, Hollywood director Martin Scorsese followed his career, and in 2016 announced that Kapadia would direct a feature, Silver Ghost, about the origins of the motor car makers (still in development).
Senna (2010), which made Kapadia famous, was a work of art, not a normal documentary. In fact it eschewed the usual narrative glue of factual storytelling – the “talking heads” used to string bits of footage together – in favour of composing a symphonic bioscape exclusively from archive, reportage and home movies. The result was an experience for the viewer that was emotionally wringing, melancholic and left one freshly in love with life.
“My films often have a spiritual dimension which comes from my Muslim background, and I’m happy to tackle that in cinema,” Kapadia says.
Senna was a difficult film to make, since it required gaining the trust of the Senna family, where many other filmmakers had failed. They hated the idea of a tragic action movie about the events at Imola in May 1994 (both Aryton Senna and Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger died that weekend, and Brazilian Reubens Barrichello was seriously injured). “They preferred what we wanted to do, which was a three-act drama celebrating his life, from archive footage,” remarked Kapadia.
A similar bridge of trust was thrown across a chasm of grief by Asif in his next documentary, Amy (2016) – which this time did win the Oscar it deserved. Winehouse’s friends and relatives were resentful of the media, but Kapadia won their trust, and little by little her network of friends opened to embrace him.
This talent Kapadia has for feeling and expressing sympathy communicates itself not only to collaborators but also through the choice and form of his films. He worked as executive producer on Stephen, a three-part documentary about the murder of Stephen Lawrence broadcast on BBC1 last April. Again, he gained the trust of his subjects, with Stephen’s mother, Baroness Lawrence, going so far as to say that Kapadia’s film would “be my final public word on the events”.
Three appears to recur in Kapadia’s output and thought – three acts, three parts, three major documentaries in Kapadia’s trilogy about young genius that finds fame (and a fall) too early. The third has again involved gaining the trust of a singular and difficult figure, Argentinian footballer Diego Maradona, for Maradona, which is now in post-production.
The past year been a quiet one on the surface – Kapadia did direct two episodes for the excellent Netflix series Mindhunter, proving he can work in the American “system” – but in filmmaking, an absence is normally because the director is working on various projects, which Kapadia is (including a feature, Moth Smoke, also in development, starring Irrfan Khan, who played the title role in The Warrior). All the sparkling premieres and publicity can occur only after the hard creative work is over.