Diego Maradona; Asif Kapadia; Documentary

By telling the story almost entirely through a combination of audio interviews and archival footage in the three biographical documentaries he has made over the decade, Asif Kapadia has found a style that’s both thrilling and touching. You don’t need to know a thing about Formula 1 to enjoy Senna (2010), his film about the Brazilian F1 Triple world champion, that won the BAFTAS. While the Oscar-winning Amy (2015) plays like an indie movie shot with a hand-held camera that feels “personal in a sad way” — like the songs Amy Winehouse wrote. Both Senna and Winehouse died young, and Kapadia conducted audio interviews of others, including family, colleagues and journalists among others. 

For his new film, Diego Maradona — somewhere between Amy and which, he directed a few episodes of the first season of Mindhunter — Kapadia had over 9 hours of interview with Maradona. But the film is constructed with footage from a particularly eventful phase in his life: the time he spent in Italy’s Napoli — 1984-1991 — that saw him lead a team that barely avoided relegation to win their first and second Serie A Italian Championship, and their only UEFA Cup; his deification by the people of Naples; his descent into drugs and women; his connections with the mafia. 

These are U-matic and one-inch tapes sourced from a fan, Maradona’s ex-wife and a supposed film that was being made to advertise him in the USA, but was never finished. 

The magic is in how Kapadia, working long-time collaborators, editor Chris King and composer Antonio Pinto, selects evocative visuals and matches them with audio interviews and music to tell a story that’s emotionally strong, and beautiful in the way image and sound come together. We see Maradona dancing in his swimming trunks, Eurotrash in the soundtrack; we feel the momentousness of the occasion when he goes for the club’s signing-in and is welcomed by the crowd — ‘The poorest place in Italy buys the most expensive footballer in the world’, says one of the headlines. And in an example of Kapadia’s knack for letting images speak for themselves, we see him distracted, staring into space in the middle of a dinner party. 

The film premiered in Cannes and is releasing in theatres this week. The British director, born to Indian parents, was in Mumbai to promote it. In an interview before a screening, organised by a multiplex chain, he spoke about why Diego Maradona is like a gangster film from the 70s, how the imperfection of found footage goes with the flawed nature of his characters, and the thread that binds Senna, Amy and Maradona. 

Asif Kapadia; Diego Maradona
Kapadia was in Mumbai to promote Diego Maradona

Senna, Amy, Maradona. What do you think drew you to these personalities?

I guess there’s something about these edgy characters who are on the outside, or fighting against the establishment… It wasn’t the plan to make three of them. Senna was a one-off. I decided to do Amy because she is a Londoner and I am a Londoner, and there were questions: That why is nobody looking after her? Why is she on stage when she is not well? Maradona stepped on because he has been around all my life, because I am a football fan. There is no doubt that for my generation growing up, he was the best player in the world. But the reason why I wanted to make a film about him is not because he was the best player, it’s because of all the madness that goes around him wherever he goes. He stands for something. Rebel, trouble maker, controversial, all that stuff makes him interesting.

Why did you chose to focus on the Napoli chapter?

We researched everything in his life. And what’s interesting is Senna’s life is different to Amy’s life which is very different to Maradona’s. Maradona’s life is in circles. He goes somewhere, there is lots of hope, everything is great, something starts to go wrong, he gets into an argument, and then disagreement, it ends badly, he leaves. He goes somewhere else. There is lots of hope. He does something great, they love him, it’s fantastic, all goes a bit wrong, he gets into an argument, ends badly, he leaves, goes somewhere else. He never seems to deal with the issue or the problem. He never looks back; it just goes on. He’s like this cowboy who just goes from one town to the next and next. And the place that he stayed the longest — 7 years — is Naples.

He never won the world cup anywhere else. Considering how brilliant a player he is, he never won a championship anywhere else. All his personal problems really started there. When we looked at the film, we saw this series of repetitions, and the bigger story was in the middle, here in Naples. Everything before is a set up to Naples, and everything after is the residue because of what happened in Naples…Everything else is the legend or the myth. That’s when we decided: Okay, that’s the movie.

Senna’s life is different to Amy’s life which is very different to Maradona’s. Maradona’s life is in circles. He goes somewhere, there is lots of hope, everything is great, something starts to go wrong, he gets into an argument, and then disagreement, it ends badly, he leaves. He goes somewhere else.

It’s interesting that you call it a ‘cowboy going to one place to another’. In one of your interviews you said the footage had the quality of early Scorsese films such as Mean Streets and Who’s that Knocking at My Door. You also mentioned the British gangster film The Long Good Friday while talking about a particular scene.   

I am quite interested in genre movies. For me Senna is like a spiritual action movie. He is like an all out action hero, and this idea of driving a car and believing in God and having this, kind of, spiritual journey coming along. 

Amy is a musical. It’s the nearest to me in ever doing a Bollywood film, because the songs came first. They were released, everyone knew them, and then we put the movie around the songs. The lyrics are the narrative. I was taking the rules of a Bollywood movie and making that into Amy — putting the lyrics on the screen so you understand the drama. 

And this is like street guys. That’s why I am thinking Mean Streets, because they are good people who just have to do what they have to do to survive. And that’s Maradona in a way, so this always felt like the texture. Naples is a street kind of a place when you see it. Maradona came from a tough place, and he is like a street fighter. He has the energy of slightly lo-fi gangster films of the early 70s when you see the way they dress and the way they look. That’s why I thought about it as a genre in a way within…I mean, then it is kind of interesting to play with those motifs and tricks.

Amy Winehouse; Asif Kapadia; Documentary
A still from Amy (2015), that won the Academy award for Best Documentary Feature.

How do you make a story which is already, in a sense, known to the public, engaging?

One of the things I am interested is these, almost, classical stories. You think you know the story. Well, I am going to say, ‘You don’t. We talked about these Shakespearean stories, or a Greek tragedy. Or how each of them has a, like I said, genre. But there is also an arc that is in classical literature all over the world, and it’s worked for thousands of years. You don’t have to rewrite how stories are created, they all have a…structure: They start here; they have characters that have ups and downs; they have a central turning point. So if you understand stories and you can use footage that exists and tell these stories that are familiar, then you know these characters but you don’t know how they got there. I find that really interesting.

Telling the story through a combination of audio interviews and archival footage has become your signature. Is it that with Senna, Amy and Diego Maradona the story demanded the treatment in all three cases? Or has it become your style?

Yeah, I think it eventually becomes the final part that you just said, which is a style I, sort of, created. It started off because I couldn’t interview Senna, as he had died 13 years before I made the film. How am I going to tell the story in the traditional way where you interview people and you show them talking and you show a bit of footage? I always found that a bit boring. I never really liked it. So I was like, how do we make this more exciting and dramatic? And how can I make it so that Ayrton Senna is going to narrate his own story? 

The only way to do that was to find interviews of him. Everyone said ‘This doesn’t work, and that’ll be silly. You have to interview people’. I said, ‘I will interview people but I don’t want to show them’. That style was the invention of the style in Senna. And it became a big hit, it was the biggest British doc ever. And that was, at that time, not what other people were doing. In the same way, I would say, when I made my first feature film The Warrior, it wasn’t what everyone else was doing. I am interested in pushing the form and the aesthetics and the style to make something different. 

Senna; Documentary; Asif Kapadia
A still from Senna (2010).

When Amy came along, it was only one year since she died. So nobody wanted to talk to me, nobody was willing to trust me… I could tell that they were really in pain and trouble, so the worst thing in the world would be to bring a camera crew and lighting and try to talk to people. So the reason for not bringing a camera and doing audio was motivated by this process. 

When I went to meet Diego the first time I took a camera, I took a crew. I thought, you know, that this might be the only time I meet Maradona. It might be the last interview of his. I don’t know what’s going to happen to him. Of course, I should have known that he is bloody indestructible. He would live forever. He dies and he comes back again…

We had the camera and a lot of people, and we waited for a week to meet him. Everyday he said ‘Not today try tomorrow’. My producers were just drinking in a bar and it was really pissing me off. I said, ‘Forget it, I am going home’. So in the end I met him on that trip for 5 minutes, and I didn’t even get the camera from the car. Then I said I am not doing this again…I have made two films where I never met them, so I’ll just do that. And we actually went back to London, and his people got into touch with us months later saying, ‘Do you want to interview him? I was like, Only if he wants me to interview…

This time I took the smallest possible crew, because just in case he cancelled, at least we wouldn’t be wasting so much money — and I think he might have cancelled for one day, but then the next day we met. And he was cool, and we interviewed and I said, ‘This is quite good but can I come back tomorrow?’ He said, ‘Yeah come tomorrow. And then we figured out how to do it. 

I have just been to Argentina, and I met people there who spent their life covering Maradona, followed Maradona, and honestly they’ll be lucky if they have 15 minutes with him. I had 9-10 hours talking to him all of my own; it’s crazy when I think about it.

At which stage did you make the choice that you are not going to do video interviews with Maradona?

After the first attempt at interviewing him… In a way, though, it comes out of the meetings that the guy that he is now isn’t the one I am making the film about. I am making the film about someone long time ago. What he looks at now is in the film, but it’s a very small part of the film. Who he was then is more interesting, and I can show you that in a more interesting way by using archive from that time. A shot him now makes no sense… compared to who he was in 1984. 

Going back to the last part of my previous question: Has it also become your style?

I know a lot of people have copied it now. I do think myself and my team are quite good at what we do, and we spend a lot of time and effort to create these universes and these stories and characters. I think I can do it in a way…and each film is slightly different, I am pushing the form a little bit. I am trying to make them into movies. 

That’s the main point, I want them to be seen them to be seen alongside that IMAX movie and WAR. It’s not something that you think, ‘Nah, I’ll watch it at home.’ I want to make you feel what it is like in a stadium with 85000 people cheering for Diego Maradona, and that experience is best seen on the big screen.

I think what has happened is, as technology in the last decade has become more and more obsessed with perfection, and how many pixels, I am kind of leaning into the opposite way, saying, ‘I am interested in imperfection’. Humans are imperfect. They are flawed. The footage matches the characters I am interested in.

It’s interesting that you talk about creating a cinematic experience by using old, glitchy archival footage. When I interviewed you about four years ago, after Amy, you said that “the more imperfect the footage gets the more emotional it becomes”. 

Because there was one shot, one moment, one time. There was no second take. So if it was a little bit blurry, shaky, out of focus, it doesn’t matter, because emotionally that’s the real thing. It’s not someone pretending. 

And I think what has happened is, as technology in the last decade has become more and more obsessed with perfection, and how many pixels, I am kind of leaning into the opposite way, saying, ‘I am interested in imperfection’. Humans are imperfect. They are flawed. The footage matches the characters I am interested in. Maradona is not perfect, and the way to tell the story is using real material that isn’t perfect. But when you see it, it kind of works! Your brain plugs in the blanks. 

I didn’t want to cut from a VHS shot from 1987 to a super perfect digital 8k HD. No one’s ever seen before that moment of Maradona. There is a particular moment — probably my favourite shot from the film — where he is sitting in a party. When you see that you realise nothing could replicate that. We found that tape from an ultra-fan somewhere outside in Naples, who had it for 35 years.

A large section of the footage you use are U-matic tapes.

When I started, like everyone else I was obsessed with the technology and striving for this concept of framing and perfection. And then for whatever reasons certain things didn’t work in the film for me, and I realised maybe I lost the point of what I was trying to say. 

With these films, it’s all about the story and character, the footage is secondary. And I think it has really been a moment of maturing for me, and actually trusting the character and story. The funny thing about U- matic is that my very first short film was on U-matic. That was in 1988. And here I am, all these years later I have come back to that format.

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