Asif Kapadia is a OSCAR, GRAMMY and BAFTA award winning director. He was born in Hackney, London. He went on to study film at 3 different higher education institutions. Kapadia is mostly known for his two critically acclaimed feature length documentary films, Senna and Amy. Both films exploring characters living in timeless, extreme and unforgiving landscapes (Svek 2016). He has won 20+ awards for his visually striking films. His film Senna, focusing on the late formula one driver was the highest grossing British documentary of all time and the second highest grossing documentary of all time in the UK. His recent documentary ‘Amy’ which explores the life of British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse has overtaken Senna and has become the second highest grossing documentary of all time.
Why I picked Asif Kapadia?
I chose to focus on Asif Kapadia because I can relate to him. Asif Kapadia is a British Asian from the UK like me. There are not a lot of Asian directors that break into Hollywood however he has managed to do it by focusing on big characters that many people know. This to me is admirable. His work interested me. When I first watched Senna, I did not know that much about the character, however throughout the film I went through a lot of emotions and I got to learn a lot about the character’s beliefs and what he wanted in life. You identify with the character and you feel what they feel.
For example, when Amy was going through her drug addiction you cant help but feel sorry for her. In my opinion a good documentary takes you on a journey with the main character(s) and you are seeing life from their POV. This is what Asif Kapadia does!
Although Kapadia is known for his critically acclaimed documentaries, His first passion was World Cinema. He first gained recognition for his film ‘The Sheep Thief (1997) which was shot in India, for this he won many international awards. He then went on to develop his distinct style in his debut feature ‘The Warrior’ (2001) which was shot in the deserts in India which he also won many awards for. This film consisted of a lot of violence and a bright color palette. Rotten Tomato’s (2005) critics describe the film as a “simple but beautifully photographed film”. He then went on to create a lot of short films, which did not have a lot of recognition. This is when he went on to create Senna which then led him on to creating Amy, two of the biggest documentaries to ever come out of the UK.
Kapadia constructs documentary by solely using Archive footage. He states that “The medium is not important, it’s the message”. Many documentary directors want their films to be visually aesthetic, however Kapadia thinks that it is more effective and more authentic if it was more raw and imperfect. Just like Amy and Senna were. In a interview, Kapadia was asked what he thinks about the digital world and shooting on film, he explains that he started shooting on film and now he works with archive. “I will shoot on anything. If the idea is good enough, if the story is strong enough, if its emotionally engaging to an audience, it doesn’t matter what you shoot on”. (Ficci Frames 2016)
Technique and his unique way of looking at the world
Asif Kapadia is very unique in the way he makes his films. As mentioned before Kapadia relies upon archive footage to tell the story. In an interview with the International documentary Association (IDA) he states that he wants to tell the story from the POV from the central character. Both Senna and Amy died before he made the documentaries therefore he has never had the characters; he has always just had other peoples POV. He is unconventional and did not want to use talking heads, So he didn’t rely upon these secondary characters instead he tried to make it all about the central character. He states that “Amy didn’t give any interviews after her first album, she didn’t speak, there was a real shortage of actual material from her own voice I didn’t want talking heads, then I realised that the lyrics were the answer to telling the story, the lyrics are her voice”. He also stated that he wanted to give the sense of the story been told in the present, however talking heads take him out of the present. (International Documentary Association 2015)
We are always told to make films about something we are passionate about, however Asif looks at this in a completely new way. He is never passionate about the subjects he documents. He states that “Weirdly enough I don’t really want to make films about things that I am really passionate about”. He then goes on to say “My fear is that if I make a film about something I love I might hate it at the end”. I think this is a really unique way of looking at things. It gave me a different perspective of the things I will like to document in the future. He is not a fan, he says “I am like the audience”. He wants his films to appeal to a wide audience and says “I want to get people who are not interested in sports and motor racing to go and see a film about sports and motor racing.” He knows what the audience wants because he was the audience at the start of production and he learnt as he went along. This is a really interesting concept for me as I feel that it is a really clever way of appealing to a mass audience. When I first watched Senna, I had no idea who Senna was, and no idea about formula 1, however I thoroughly enjoyed the film because the themes are universal.
In another interview he states, “The world may get obsessed over technologically perfect images but it can’t make you feel or cry. The texture of the real footage, its imperfections are something I find very convincing and believable. The worse the quality of footage gets, the more emotional the audience is. That’s why I love film too, with its grains and scratches” (Ghosh 2016). I agree with this statement, which is why I love both of his documentaries
Kapadia has made a few enemies during the distribution of Amy. Mitch Winehouse, Amy’s father was highly critical of the documentary even before its first screening in Cannes. He took to Twitter to attack Kapadia over his film, which he described as a “negative, spiteful and misleading portrayal” of his daughter (Reporters 2016), However Kapadia states that Amy didn’t look bad at all. He said “I made the film as honestly as I could considering the research and the footage I’ve seen. It is an honest representation of what was going on” (Macnab 2015). Although many critics have appraised the film, the film still had negative responses. In a article on the guardian, Ruby Lott-Lavigna criticises the documentary and says it exploits the late singer. She says..
“Crucially, all the critics seem to overlook 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. 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.” (Lott-Lavigna 2015)
Personally I don’t agree with this statement because I feel that if you are going to tell a story you should tell all of it, and the only way to elicit the emotion from the viewers was to show these images of Amy being hounded by the press and her in her intimate moments. That is part of her story and Kapadia wanted to show the truth. That is the reason why the documentary is so powerful, It has altered peoples opinions on Amy and the person that she was.
Kapadia has taught me that the visuals don’t always have to look perfect. He also taught me that the message is the most important thing and documenting the truth. I will defiantly apply everything I have learnt from him into my own research and development
Ficci Frames (2016) ‘Up close & personal with Asif Kapadia!! FICCI frames 2016’. in YouTube [online] YouTube. available from <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6OALSNp3jgY> [16 September 2016]
Ghosh, S. (2016) ‘All about Asif – exclusive interview with Oscar winner Asif Kapadia’ [online] available from <http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/entertainment/all-about-asif/article8428631.ece> [16 September 2016]
International Documentary Association (2015) ‘Asif Kapadia on talking heads in documentaries’. in YouTube [online] YouTube. available from <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZIQo494308c> [16 September 2016]
Lott-Lavigna, R. (2015) ‘Why the Amy Winehouse film is little better than the paps who hounded her’. The Guardian [online] 27 November. available from <https://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2015/jul/22/why-the-amy-winehouse-film-is-little-better-than-the-paps-who-hounded-her> [16 September 2016]
Macnab, G. (2015) Asif Kapadia responds to Amy Winehouse documentary criticisms [online] available from <http://www.screendaily.com/news/kapadia-responds-to-winehouse-doc-criticisms/5089579.article> [16 September 2016]
Reporters, T. (2016) ‘Oscar-winning Amy is a ‘negative, spiteful and misleading’ film, says Mitch Winehouse’. The Telegraph [online] 29 February. available from <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/film/amy/oscar-winner-spiteful-mitch-winehouse/> [16 September 2016]
Rotten Tomatoes (2005) [15 July 2005] available from <https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1147812-warrior/> [16 September 2016]
Svek (2016) Asif Kapadia [online] available from <http://www.onthecorner.tv/about-us/asif-kapadia> [16 September 2016]