Senna broke box-office records in the UK, but Amy beat Senna to become Britain’s highest grossing documentary of all time.
Director Asif Kapadia is very demanding of the geniuses he picks. Apart from being high achievers, they have to be interesting as well. To Kapadia that means a life’s journey which, apart from staggering success, jubilation, money and fame, also has generous interruptions and lows — conflict, drama, tragedy, stuff that he can find and then scour. Moments that capture his child prodigies at their peak, but also moments when they fall victim to their vulnerabilities.
This is what, Kapadia says, engages and moves the audience. It’s also what sustains his interest.
Kapadia, 47, who has been called a trailblazer for finding, and then editing, reconstructing archival footage into award-winning documentaries about young geniuses and their addictive pursuits, began in 2010 with Senna. His documentary on the Brazilian race car driver Ayrton Senna, who died at the age of 34 in a crash, won two Baftas.
Then came Amy, a 2015 documentary on the British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse who died of alcohol poisoning at the age of 27. It got him one more Bafta, and one Oscar.
Senna broke box-office records in the UK, but Amy beat Senna to become Britain’s highest grossing documentary of all time.
At some point between Senna and Amy, there were reports of Kapadia considering making a documentary on Sachin Tendulkar.
Kapadia met Sachin, and dropped the idea.
“Some people are not very interesting. They may be great achievers but they are boring,” he says, speaking generally, not specifically.
Kapadia, the youngest of five children of Gujarati-Muslim parents, grew up in Hackney, a borough of inner London. For most of his early years, he was confused about “what he was” and where he belonged. But a visit to Gujarat in his 20s was both, unsettling and comforting. Though he looked like people around him, he realised he was a Londoner. That was the city he loved, and finally felt he belonged to.
But the “outsider” in him always sought out other outsiders.
Most of Kapadia’s subjects have led lives that have nourished tabloids, their genius measured and judged through headlines screaming of scandal, breakdown, public embarrassment and tragedy. And yet, his films suss out their humanity, their frailties, those stunning, scary moments before they rush headlong into disaster.
Kapadia says that he has no interest in being around people, including his genius subjects, when they are in a dark place, having a meltdown, or, like Diego Maradona, his latest and last subject in the trilogy about child prodigies who struggled with fame, showing the finger to the camera and the world. And yet, it’s these very things — the cracks in these formidable characters, their daunting personalities and devastating choices — that, to him, make for a compelling story.
Otherwise he can’t live with them, spend years watching archival footage, home videos, talking to other people about them, looking for that one thing which forms the essence of his film. Or, as he says, puts his fingerprint on their life’s story.
Kapadia’s search for the kernel, the unguarded, honest moment when the fatal flaw takes charge is almost Shakespearean in its devotion.
While editing 15,000 hours of footage down to 90 minutes for Senna, his focus was on the “reckless and angry Brazilian in Europe” who was consumed by his rivalry with Alain Prost, hatred for his sport and, some say, riding a death wish.
Amy, both prodigy and child, was eager to please, but also to shock and subvert. She craved acceptance, nurturing, tried desperately to cope with the demands of fame, struggled with drinking, bulimia, drugs, and her father. Tabloids covered it all, but they bypassed the young, insanely talented but unhappy girl.
Apart from being outsiders, the other themes and traits that bind his three documentary characters are about how “we” — the public, the press — built “them up and rip them down”. Shackling geniuses to their success, and then gawking at them as they rebel against its demands.
Fame and fortune, stalked by tragedy.
In the case of Senna and Amy, yes, but not Diego Maradona. The footballer courted it all, and then trumped it all, repeatedly.
Asif Kapadia has been travelling the world since Diego Maradona: Rebel. Hero. Hustler. God., premiered at the Cannes International Film Festival in May this year.
He has been to France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Holland, Argentina, USA, and was in India early this month. He was being hosted and chaperoned around by PVR Pictures which has brought his film to India.
Kapadia had just landed and was doing back-to-back press interviews. The PR ladies had promised me “at least 20 minutes”, but just before being let in, I was told it’ll have to be 10 minutes.
I, and our photographer, Bunny Smith, were ushered into a moodily lit lounge where Kapadia was sitting on a long sofa. I took the seat to his left, so that Bunny had a clean frame.
Though Kapadia looked jet-lagged, he was affable, articulate and attentive. But just as begins taking animatedly about Diego Maradona, he is distracted by the intrusion of the flash and the camera lens.
Looking at Bunny, Kapadia says, “Do you wanna, like, do a proper sit-down one afterwards or are you gonna…?”
“Are you not comfortable? If you are not, we can do it later,” I say.
“Well, it depends. If it’s like a, me and you talking photo, that’s different to me talking.”
“It’s just you.”
“Right. Okay. Fine. It makes me more self-conscious when I am talking to you.”
Intrusions like cameras and crew, Kapadia believes, bring out the performer in people.
That’s why, perhaps, for his documentaries he relies almost entirely on archival footage and home videos — there is a certain purity to them, and he tries to preserve the same purity of process and style in his filmmaking.
Kapadia believes in the integrity of the documentary, has an ethic he sticks to. He doesn’t appear in his films, and he doesn’t like talking heads because, he says, that takes the audience out of the film.
“A lot of people do it very well. But… I am not a fan of that technique because I want to just forget the process...”
Kapadia couldn’t interview Senna, who died in 1994. And he couldn’t meet Amy either.
But Maradona he could meet, interview.
Kapadia and his crew flew to Dubai, where Maradona lives in a villa on Palm Jumeirah. “I met him, we had five minutes, shook hands, then we went away… But then they kept cancelling, saying not today, come back tomorrow, not today… I had a crew of about eight people waiting around, doing nothing for a week. It’s a waste of money.”
Kapadia, who says he is not interested in chasing famous people around, decided to do what he had done with Amy and Senna. “If he doesn’t want to meet me, fine, I’ll make the film without talking to him.”
For eight months, he and his team carried on working, researching, going over the footage, interviewing people. “And then his people said, don’t you want to interview him. I said ya I do, but only if he wants to talk… They said, this time he wants to talk.”
But, Kapadia says, he realised that “you always have to hang around for people like him”. So he decided to ditch the camera, the crew and go alone. “I’m gonna be the sound recordist. I’ll bring the machine. I’m gonna keep it simple so that I don’t get a performance… I didn’t want a performance from Maradona. I wanted to see if I can find Diego.”
Kapadia believes that if you have just one meeting with someone, and it goes badly, it is sure to impact your view of that person and reflect in your work about them. That’s why, he says, he took a long time making his documentaries. “I wanted to have a more balanced feeling about the character… We are going to do all the work of finding the essence of the story so that you can watch it in two hours, and then, hopefully, you will understand everything about this person and see them in a new light,” he says.
While Kapadia had some good meetings and some bad ones, because “everyone is complicated”, he says Diego was great.
“We went to his house, he invited me in, we had coffee, we were on his sofa watching TV… He was really charming and it went really well, and I said can I come back tomorrow, and he said sure. And I went the next day and he was even better. And because I met him 4-5 times, I was able to earn a little bit of trust to dig deeper and ask some of the tough questions.”
Kapadia is proud of the access he got and the questions he asked.
He asked Diego Maradona about the “hand of god” goal, about his family, growing up, his addiction, his illegitimate kids. “It’s all in the film — in the film, whenever you hear his voice, that’s what we talked about… He has never really talked about that… I realise only now, having been to Argentina, having shown the film there… there were people there who have grown up with him, who are obsessed with him, have been writing about him all their lives, they’d be lucky to have 15 minutes with him. I met him for nine hours. That’s mad!”
“There may not be a lot that’s usable from those nine hours,” says Kapadia, ”but the stuff we got, no one else has ever got. He even said that to me. At one point I asked him a tough question, and he said, ‘Look, you’ve got real nerve asking me this question. Who do you think you are to ask me these questions?”
Diego Maradona, he recounts, was speaking a very particular kind of Argentinian Spanish that Kapadia didn’t understand. So along with a headphone on, on his phone’s WhatsApp was his colleague and translator Laura, listening in from Buenos Aires, and then translating it into another phone that was also plugged into Kapadia’s ear.
“While he’s saying you’ve got real nerve saying this to me, I’m kind of smiling, and then slowly the translations come along, and he says, ‘but for that I respect you, because most people don’t have the nerve to say this to my face. They say it to my back’.”
But often, in response to difficult questions, “he would give me this brilliant 20-minute answer… some blather… That’s what he does. He’s the master of diversion.”
Kapadia’s film traces Diego Maradona’s life from birth, as the son born to loving parents after four daughters in Villa Fiorito, Buenos Aires’ shanty town, who took care of his family since the age of 15, but its main focus is on Maradona in Naples, where he arrived in 1984, soon after a public brawl led to his inglorious departure from FC Barcelona.
Naples, known as the “Africa of Italy” for its poverty and squalor, was also football mad and had paid world record fee of $10.48 million to get Maradona to play for its club, Napoli, in Italy’s football league, Serie A.
Naples is the “city where Diego Maradona rose from the dead”, and which, after he brought it victory against AC Milan, Juventus and Italy’s other northern giants, hung a poster outside a local cemetery, declaring, “They don’t know what they missed”.
With a succession of championship wins, Maradona had elevated Napoli to the most successful era in its history and Neapolitans celebrated each victory as only they can — they held mock funerals for Juventus and Milan, painted huge murals of Maradona on the city’s ancient buildings and named newborn children after him.
The idea for a documentary on Diego Maradona, Kapadia says, got planted sometime in 2012, when he met a producer who had unearthed hundreds of hours of candid footage shot by two cameramen in Naples.
It was unseen footage, apparently commissioned by Maradona himself, as a “safeguard against getting kidnapped.”
Naples in those years was controlled by the Camorra (mafia) which had partially financed Maradona’s move from FC Barcelona. And though he ended up being close to them, he also wanted a record of his whereabouts.
Kapadia and his producer, James Gay-Rees, got the footage and permission from the court to use revealing calls recorded by the Italian police who had been tapping Maradona’s phone.
As Kapadia and his team watched the videos, listened to the phone calls, a theme began to emerge — Death and Resurrection.
In Kapadia’s film, we see a young, short Argentinean man with taut, muscular thighs and a head encased by crazy curls. A footballer with nerves, endless energy, spirit, unbelievable talent and guile on the field. We don’t see Diego Maradona being interviewed, but hear him in voiceover, talking of football being a “game of deceit”, about that first hit of cocaine at a nightclub in Barcelona when he was 23 that made him feel “like Superman”.
There’s Diego, the football god, legend with the best goal ever to his credit, and then there’s the persona of Maradona (the footballer refers to himself as Maradona, in third person, while Kapadia refers to him as Diego) who was addicted to cocaine, had links with the Mafia, and loved flaunting accessories of the rich, from cars and fur coats to jewellery and women.
We hear commentators talk of him as a footballer who didn’t have the physical advantage, and so, for him, it became a game of the mind and, at least in one epic moment, sleight of hand (the infamous “hand of God” goal at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico). Argentina’s win against England at the time of the Falkland War was celebrated in Naples as if it was its own victory, but things changed with the 1990 Fifa World Cup.
July 3, 1990. Argentina versus Italy, in Naples’ Stadio San Paolo. The same stadium where, on July 5, 1984, 75,000 tifosi (fans) had turned up to catch a glimpse of him.
Neapolitans, torn between supporting their idol and their country, hung up banners that read: “Diego in our hearts, Italy in our chants”, “Maradona: Naples loves you, but Italy is our homeland.”
But when Argentina, led by Maradona, beat Italy in the semifinals and put the host country out of the World Cup, the backlash was quick and nasty. The football god was now the “devil, Lucifer,” whom Naples, and Italy, hated as much as they loved him once.
There were inquiries into his drug habits, wire-taps that revealed gory details of his sex life with prostitutes, and he tested positive for drugs that led to a ban. Eventually, the man who had arrived in Naples to thousands cheering and clamouring to catch a glimpse, left the city in disgrace in 1992, all alone.
“He goes somewhere. He’s a great hero. He does something brilliant. They love him! It all goes a little bit wrong. Someone tries to control him. He says, ‘Don’t tell me what to do!’ It ends in disaster. He leaves. He’s rock bottom. His career’s over. He goes somewhere else, starts again… The number of times he’s been knocked down, the number of times he’s literally died! And he comes back again. He’s a great hero,” says Kapadia.
Diego Maradona begins with the footballer who weighed 67 kg at his peak, and later, at one point, is a 130 kg sad, unrecognisable relic of himself.
Many years after he left Naples in disgrace, in Diego Maradona’s honour, Napoli officially retired the No. 10 jersey.
Since Kapadia has only picked the very well-known, people who have lived their lives in full public view, he says he’s always under pressure to say something new.
“Whenever I make a film, my point is to say something new about characters that people think they know. People had this image of him — he’s quite a tough character to love… Now if people watch the film and say, aaaa, I knew all of that and I have seen it all before, then I suppose I have failed. But so far — Is there any wood anywhere? — so far even Argentineans are like, we didn’t know this story. Italians are like, we thought we knew, we didn’t know it. So everyone has said they have learnt something,” he says.
Kapadia, however, is not sure if his pursuit of “finding Diego” has been successful. “Imagine a spectrum — I’m making a film about this guy here who is 22-23 years old. He arrives in Naples. But I am meeting this guy who is over here, he’s 57 years old. He is Maradona. So in a way I almost felt like I was making a film about a different guy to the guy I was talking to.”
But, Kapadia says, he caught glimpses of Diego in some unguarded moments. “I would say the most interesting thing is, he has his persona of this tough macho guy, and very Latin, and the thing I think is most interesting is that he is very vulnerable. Lost. This macho man is quite vulnerable at times.”
So, has the macho, vulnerable man seen the film, I ask.
“Not that I know of. I tried… We never got to him… When I was flying here, it was shown in Argentina. So he might have. I’ll find out when I check Instagram. He’ll say something on Instagram.”
I checked. Neither Diego, nor Maradona has yet commented on the film.