The sad death of Irrfan Khan means a look back to some of his most significant films. The Warrior marks the point in Irrfan’s career when he had reached an impasse. Although he had already spent 14 years working in TV and film in India, he was thinking of giving it up since he was getting bored with jobs that didn’t stretch him or interest him. Fortunately he heard about Asif Kapadia’s project to make The Warrior and when the two men met they got on very well and became firm friends. When Irrfan’s death was announced at the end of April, Kapadia released a moving tribute to his friend.
Asif Kapadia is Indian-British. Born in London and taking a route through UK higher education he eventually emerged on the international scene with a short film The Sheep Thief (1997) which caused a stir at various festivals. Shot in Rajasthan this is available on the DVD of The Warrior and it clearly set up the possibility of a feature set in India. The Warrior was fortunate to emerge at a time when there was more support for British film with the development of a funding and support infrastructure through the British Film Council set up by the new Labour government elected in 1997. This co-production was no doubt underway before The Film Council took over British Screen, but the new structure was always likely to try to highlight this release. It was given a spread in Sight and Sound in 2002 and won various awards around Europe. It didn’t make any direct impact in the film market in India but it did introduce both Asif Kapadia and Irrfan Khan to the European and North American segment of the festival circuit and this in turn would strengthen his position in India.
Film 4, one of the UK partners involved has long been a supporter of Indian cinema in the UK, albeit in the early hours of the morning. Still, it has links to Indian film industries and film culture and in 1994 had funded a controversial diaspora film by Shekhar Kapur, Bandit Queen. The Warrior is a very different kind of story with Kapadia and co-writer Tim Miller turning to Japanese folk-tales (presumably the reason why ‘the warrior’ is known as ‘Lafcadia’ in some listings, a possible reference to Lafcadia Hearn the Greek-Irish writer famous for his books on Japanese ghost stories). If the story is Japanese, the film also draws on Japanese cinema as well as Chinese cinemas (Taiwan/HK?) and spaghetti Westerns (which also derive from Kurosawa et al). The film narrative is very simple. ‘The Warrior’ (he isn’t named in the film) becomes disgusted with his feudal lord’s commands which mean executing tenants who can’t pay annual rents and raising villages to the ground, killing everyone. When he rebels, The Warrior becomes an outlaw pursued by the lord’s other warrior retainers. After his son is executed by his enemies he escapes to the desert, but he is finally saved by his companionship to a boy and to a girl and her family. The plot involves some ‘magic realism’ in terms of the girl. The desert scenes were shot in Rajasthan and the mountain scenes in Himachal Pradesh. I was struck by the several shots of lone trees in the desert and the use of extreme long shots covering the journeys taken. Some of these made me think of traditional East Asian visual art rather than the style of contemporary Indian cinema. I’ve included several images of the ‘long shot style’ here.
At around 86 minutes, the film is short but it is packed with some stunning cinematography by Roman Dosin on his first film as DoP. The music by Dario Marianelli works well with the ‘Scope photography. I think both Osin and Marianelli must have met Asif Kapadia in London. They worked on his next few films. The star of the show, however, is Irrfan khan. He has relatively little dialogue, but he says a great deal with his eyes, one of his strengths. Kapadia does well to organise a cast which includes only a few other professional actors amid a much larger group of local non-professionals, some of them in significant roles.
Since his critical success with this film, Asif Kapadia has had no luck with three further features, none of which made much money, but he has become a hot name in documentary with his trio of biography pics, Senna (UK-Brazil 2010), Amy (UK 2015) and Diego Maradona (UK 2019). I hope he doesn’t give up on features and if I can find time, I might look at the earlier ‘flops’. Irrfan Khan’s career took off from this point. He got more prestigious roles in Hindi cinema and was recruited by diaspora and American/European directors shooting in India.
This is the third documentary biopic by Asif Kapadia following Senna (UK 2010) and Amy (UK 2015). It certainly matches the brilliance of those two earlier films. Kapadia, editor Chris King and music composer Antonio Pinto have again excelled themselves in creating a compelling narrative from found footage (mostly from the subject’s own archive) and audio interviews. I don’t think, however, that the three subjects are necessarily comparable. Certainly they each had careers with stellar periods and a strong emotional bond with fans but although they were both South American sporting legends, Ayrton Senna and Diego Maradona came from different backgrounds and the impulses behind the endings of their careers were quite different. Amy Winehouse was in some ways equally troubled by her attempts to deal with success and her emotional life as was Maradona but the music industry of the 2000s provides a different context to football in the 1980s.
If you don’t know the Maradona story, the film is mainly concerned with the period Diego Maradona spent as a footballer at Napoli between 1984 and 1991. He was 23 when he signed for Napoli after two seasons at Barcelona and 30 when he left Napoli. There is some coverage of his childhood and early career and a brief coda about what happened when he left Napoli. The focus on this period also includes his appearances with the Argentinian national team which won the the 1986 World Cup in Mexico and were beaten finalists in ‘Italia 90’ – West Germany were the opponents on each occasion.
Asif Kapadia is a football fan according to his tweets about supporting Liverpool. Yet one of the odd points about his Maradona film is that, despite a lot of footage from games featuring Napoli and Argentina, the film does not explore football itself in the way that Senna seemed to me to be partly ‘about’ motor racing. However, I did find the football match footage fascinating. Maradona made goals for other players that were deceptively simple but often scored goals himself that seemed to be magical in the way he bent the ball. The primary focus of the film is the footballer’s psychological profile which is outlined here by his personal trainer at Napoli.
The personal trainer tells us that Diego the young man is vulnerable because of his insecurities. He is a family man close to his mother and a likeable person. Maradona the footballer, bought for the then record transfer fee of $6.9 million in 1984 is, by contrast, constructed to survive in top class football. He develops a carapace to protect himself and his skills. ‘Maradona’ is a much more troubling character who looks for diversions in the wrong places when he is not training and playing. The narrative of his life then becomes the story of how ‘Maradona’ becomes almost a God in Naples before destroying himself and almost destroying Diego. Kapadia called his film ‘Diego Maradona’ – both names – whereas the earlier films, ‘Senna’ and ‘Amy’, used only one.
As in the other films, the archive footage tells the story through the edit, with ‘witness’ interviews played in audio over the archive material. I don’t think anyone is interviewed on screen by Kapadia or his team, though there are several archive interviews. The film flows because of the brilliance of the editing decisions, both what to include and how to cut it, and the music. It runs for 130 minutes and though some have suggested the match footage could be shortened, most football fans will want to see all of it – partly because we are offered different viewpoints than was usual for 1980s TV coverage. Because most of the footage is from video recordings or 8mm film the disparity between 35mm film and video is not so pronounced. The two World Cup finals and a later Argentinian TV interview from 2004 stand out in terms of higher definition. I assume that the video material has been cropped in many cases but I was so taken up with the pace of the narrative that I didn’t notice any changes of aspect ratio or obvious cropping.
One other difference in this Kapadia film is the importance of Napoli as a location, but also as a ‘character’ in the story. I hadn’t realised just how much Napoli was seen as an underperforming club in Serie A before Maradona’s arrival or how much the North-South divide mattered in Italian football. Napoli’s stadium, San Paolo was finally completed in 1959 but when Maradona is first introduced to fans at the stadium in 1984 I was struck by the long walk to the pitch from the bowels of the stadium with high walls over which the crowds could see Maradona emerging on the pitch. I was reminded of gladiators entering the arena in Roman times. Later, when Maradona reached his highest status with the fans, murals began to appear claiming him as the modern manifestation of San Gennaro, Naples’ patron saint.
What most intrigued me was the inclusion of two or three soundbites in which Maradona is referred to (in the subtitles) as “this black kid from a poor neighbourhood”. Kapadia clearly chose these clips but the format doesn’t really allow any discussion of the implication that some of Maradona’s problems come from the prejudice that his family faced in Argentina and elsewhere. I was reminded of the not dissimilar case of Luis Suaréz who has been a highly successful South American player in European football for over ten years, but like Maradona he has also been embroiled in various controversial incidents (all on the field). In 2011 as a Liverpool player Suaréz was banned for eight matches and fined for using racist language in an altercation with Patrice Evra. Suaréz did not accept the charge, claiming that the use of terms for ‘black’ in Latin America was different to that in Europe. There is a long tradition of South American players signing for clubs in Spain and Italy, but in the 1980s the film suggests that Maradona still felt an outsider.
Asif Kapadia does include the moment when Maradona became notorious in England with the ‘hand of God’ goal in Mexico – but also scored one of the greatest World Cup goals. The link is made to the Malvinas War which I’m sure was a worrying time for Argentinians as well as for those of us in the UK who didn’t support Thatcher’s war. I noted that the footage of the game in Mexico revealed some horrendous English fouls as the players sought in vain to negate Maradona’s influence on the game.
Overall, although I really enjoyed the film and I recommend it highly, I’m wondering now if there is enough worthwhile material to make a longer documentary serial for TV. I’d like to know more about football culture and institutions in Italy, Argentina and worldwide in the 1980s and I’d also like a little more about ‘Diego’ as well as about Maradona.
There are several ways to approach Amy, already one of the biggest documentary box-office hits of recent years. One would be in terms of its fidelity/revelation for Amy Winehouse fans. I wasn’t one of those (although I admired the voice and followed some of the news stories) so I won’t go there. Instead, I think it’s worth considering a comparison with Senna (UK 2010), Asif Kapadia’s earlier documentary about the Brazilian Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna.
Senna was in several ways a breakthrough cinema documentary, not only in terms of documentary practice, but also in the way that it was distributed – becoming one of the first cinema films to benefit from the changes in distribution brought about by digital projection. These enabled the film to ‘grow’ an audience over several weeks in the UK and to eventually attract filmgoers who were not necessarily fans of Ayrton Senna or motor racing. (The film eventually earned US$5 million in the UK and over US$5 million overseas.) It could be argued that one of the major reasons why this wider audience enjoyed the film was because the story was heavily ‘narrativised’. Asif Kapadia chose to present archive footage in such a way that the edited material ‘told’ the story of what happened to Senna without a controlling voiceover. Different voices on the soundtrack were used to overlay the footage (and again, with just a few exceptions, these were comments from the archive). The overall effect was to create something with a narrative structure similar to the fictional ‘sports biopic’ with recognisable conventional elements. Thus Ayrton Senna emerges as an attractive young man as well as an exciting and accomplished racing driver. As the hero he battles against a clearly defined rival in the form of Alain Prost as well as against the institutional elements of the sport, especially in battles about the safety of the sport. The story has a tragic ending that becomes what would be the ‘final act’ of a conventional biopic.
Amy was presented as a project to Asif Kapadia because of his success with Senna and the similarities between the story of the sports star and the music star. On Senna, Kapadia had access to all the material owned by FOM (Formula 1 Management) the single body in control of the sport. For Amy he had access to all the music produced under contract by Amy Winehouse for Universal Music. These were massive advantages since negotiating rights for such material would prove both expensive and time-consuming for other producers. My interest in this comparison is first to work through the similarities and differences between the two projects and then to try to assess what emerges from this analysis and what it ‘opens up’ in terms of ‘reading’ Amy. I’m not going to be able to complete the work until a DVD of Amy becomes available since close readings of sequences are going to be required. I’ve already worked on Senna for earlier student events and the notes for teachers from those events are available for Free Download here. At the moment I’ll restrict myself to a few first observations about the similarities and differences between the two films and their production contexts.
Both films are, at least potentially, linked via narrative structure to the biopic. Senna is clearly modelled on the sports biopic. Formula 1 is an interesting sport because it is now truly ‘international’ as well as being part of wider ‘motor sport’. This makes it attractive as the basis for an international commercial film. It also has the benefit of its presentation via technology – i.e. it is possible present credible fictional ‘sporting footage’. Football, despite being the world’s most watched sport has so far failed to produce major films partly because it isn’t possible to find actors who can play the game to the standard of internationally known star players. By contrast Rush (2013) made US$90 million worldwide as a drama based on the Formula 1 battle between James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) in the 1970s. Certain sports have generated celebrity figures and are associated with glamour. Arguably football is now approaching the point where star players are international celebrities, including in North America. Though it isn’t a biopic, Bend It Like Beckham (UK-Germany 2002) demonstrated that a small independent film could travel internationally, partly because of its association with a celebrity figure (who isn’t a character in the film). Perhaps the most frequently used material for fictional sports films comes from boxing. Boxing involves violence, ‘body spectacle’ and connections to both celebrity culture (boxers are often the best paid international sports stars) and , at least historically, elements of organised crime. Boxing also fosters the idea of fallen men ‘rising up’.
The sports biopic has much in common with the music biopic in terms of conventions. Both are likely to be biopics that focus more upon the teen to thirties period when young stars develop and reach the ‘top of their game’. Both deal with early struggles to develop talent and feature ‘breakthrough’ moments. Often young stars will have personal battles with competitors, struggles with their personal lives, conflicts with managers and official/institutional bodies and struggles with the impact of fandom. More recently, celebrity culture has become a major issue for both sports and music stars. The narrative events in both can be categorised as ‘private’ and ‘public’ – the public events have already been presented to TV audiences and mediated many times. Even those which are now mainly historical can be ‘known’ to modern audiences via DVDs etc.
However, music biopics are usually more popular than sports biopics. There are many more produced and some (e.g. Walk the Line, 2005) have been major international box office successes as well as awards winners. Audiences are going to be more familiar with the conventions and the stories themselves are often more accessible (we know the songs, we feel closer to the music industry than to the official bodies of sporting organisations). If Kapadia consciously constructed Senna as a sports biopic, did he do the same with Amy and the music bio? My initial reaction is that if he did, he left out many of the expected elements.
Amy and genre conventions
Perhaps because I didn’t follow the ‘real’ story as a fan, I’m more conscious of the ‘gaps’ in Amy as a music biopic. For example, the industrial aspect of the business is only lightly sketched in. Universal is the biggest of the music majors and a global corporation (owned by Vivendi in France). Amy Winehouse was signed to Island, a Universal label in the UK and to a different Universal label, Revolution, in the US. The label bosses do figure briefly in the film but the ‘signing process’, a generic feature of the music biopic, isn’t covered – nor is the success of the albums Frank (2003) or Back to Black (2006) presented in visual terms. Maybe this is a reflection on current music industry practices (i.e. chart positions, sales etc. are less important moments)? But it does seem to me that the narrative is more focused on the final act and hasn’t space for these conventional sequences. One consequence of this is that the film tends to lose any sense of the economics that underpin the singer’s lifestyle. We know she has become rich, but what does this mean? She seems to be in rehab or spending six months in St. Lucia – how does this relate to pressure re contracts to produce records and to make live appearances? I was quite confused by the events leading up to the gig in Belgrade – did she want to do gigs like this or was she forced to?
Amy is about relationships – with her parents, her two best friends and the various music industry personnel and fans that she meets, some of whom become friends and one of whom becomes her husband. However, these relationships seem to be mainly presented as part of the tragic personal narrative rather than equally representing the personal and the professional development of Amy Winehouse as a singer, composer and performer. We don’t get enough of the changes in Winehouse’s musical tastes and the potential conflicts this might create for her band members or for the record label bosses. Friends more au fait with her music have also suggested that the film gives us only a few of the songs/performances that made her a star – which seems surprising given that the rights were presumably available via Universal. I can only conclude that Kapadia chose to focus on the personal and the celebrity status rather than the early music career as this would attract a wider audience. Personally, the best parts of the film for me included the early footage of a young woman playing guitar and singing in the manner of her jazz heroes, and her recording of a duet with Tony Bennett (it was Bennett who prompted me to take Amy Winehouse seriously when he was interviewed at the time of that recording session).
Amy and the aesthetics of documentary practice
I really do need the DVD for this. What interests me, in comparison with Senna, is the extent to which Kapadia was limited by the found footage available. On Senna he found footage that was in one sense ‘neutral’ (i.e. not focused directly on Ayrton Senna) and which he was able to manipulate and edit in different ways to suggest meanings. Sometimes he discovered footage that offered better images than he might have conceived himself. At other times he found footage that worked purely on a visual level through editing and processing. By contrast, my first impression was that the footage in Amy seems less malleable, partly because much of it is more intimate and closely focused on Amy Winehouse herself. I might be completely wrong (which is why I need a DVD for confirmation) but much of the footage seems to have been shot on phones or video cameras and the best quality footage comes from TV shows. I suppose motor racing is inherently more ‘cinematic’. In Amy, the only footage taken by Kapadia’s cameras seems to comprise a number of aerial shots of London, used partly to show the singer’s homes and partly as ‘punctuation’ between the sequences of found footage. I’m not sure if this worked.
What does this add up to? I’m moving towards arguing that Amy doesn’t work as well as Senna in informing us about the music business or in telling us Amy Winehouse’s story as a music star. On the other hand it may work just as well, if not better, as an affective story about the tragedy of Amy Winehouse’s personal life – and that may explain why it will be more successful commercially. The fact that her father has objected to the film (he figures prominently in the footage as one of the potential villains of the narrative but her mother is less visible) may well have added to audience interest. A fiercely critical view of Kapadia’s approach can be found in a Guardian blog post by Ruby Lott-Lavigna:
. . . the film’s exploitative lens: a lens that lingers on intimate images of Winehouse gaunt and high, or on the shocking footage of her body being removed from her Camden home in a body bag. One that leers at her bulimia-wrecked form or even more questionably, uses paparazzi footage in the same breath as explaining how being hounded by the press drove her closer to breaking point. The documentary lacks a voice, supplementing this void with a tabloid-esque scrapbook timeline transposed to screen. Using personal footage and amateurishly inscribing her lyrics across the stage as she sings them, it is reminiscent of a fan-made YouTube video. The documentary seems to lack any moral control, instead stacking one image of a drunken Winehouse on top of another, gradually effacing its own credibility.
This is interesting in its assertion that what is seen by ‘the lens’ – i.e. the found footage that Kapadia has chosen – needs to be ‘explained’ or ‘anchored’ by a (presumably objective) narrator. It also implies that documentaries must embody a moral position instead of offering a narrative that audiences must read and make up their own minds about. I do agree about the lyrics though. Sometimes it was useful but having them for every song did get tedious.
For now I’m biding my time until I can analyse the film in detail before deciding where I stand. In the meantime what were your first impressions?
Here’s the US trailer:
These notes act as an introduction to some of the interesting questions about the approach to a specific type of documentary by the British filmmaker Asif Kapadia. The same approach was adopted in Kapadia’s recent film Amy (UK 2015) telling the tragic story of Amy Whitehouse. A detailed post on Amy will follow shortly.
The approach discussed here involves creating a narrative entirely from archive or ‘found’ footage and complementary sound recording and photographs.
The notes were originally provided for study days for A Level Film and Media groups (16-19 year-old students) involving a full screening and an illustrated lecture on documentary practice. Some of the background material was jointly written with Nick Lacey. The notes include discussion questions and can be used in conjunction with the DVD of Senna.