A brief look at documentary…


Nicolas Philibert

The Screen St Ives film for July was Senna. Since I somehow missed this documentary when first released, I was very pleased to catch-up with it at this friendly community cinema.

I have very little interest in sport – one reason I probably didn’t rush out to see the film on release – but this documentary had me enthralled from start to finish. It clearly had a powerful affect on our audience as well, and we had a very interesting post film discussion. Some of the issues we talked about are touched on in this Stuart Jeffries interview with Senna director Asif Kapadia.

Kapadia says:-

The challenge was to make a film that appealed to people who think Formula One is about men driving in circles in oversized cigarette packets.

Judging by the positive reactions from our audience reaction, he certainly did that.

Interestingly, other film makers had also wanted to make a film about this charismatic man:-

Lots of film-makers over the years approached the Senna family,” says Kapadia. “Oliver Stone, Michael Mann and I’m pretty sure Ridley Scott all approached, and were told no. Antonio Banderas wanted to play Senna.”


Why were they rebuffed? “The main thing was they all wanted to make a film about his final weekend at Imola in 1994. The family didn’t want that. They preferred what we wanted to do, which was a three-act drama celebrating his life, from archive footage.”

Even though Senna is less obtrusive than some documentaries in its story-telling, it clearly sets out to tell a well-structured narrative.

“It’s the story of an outsider – a Brazilian who came to Europe and took them on. A man who was slightly apart from the world he inhabited”

Some documentary makers take a different approach, though.

In France we have a saying: “Le chemin se fait en marchant”; the path is made by walking it. And that, for better or worse, is how I tend to work as a film-maker. I make my documentaries from a position of ignorance and curiosity. I need to have a starting point but I don’t need a map; I don’t need to know the final destination. In this way, the film is an invitation. It’s saying: come with me and we’ll go and see what’s happening. We might get lost but that’s OK.

So says filmmaker Nicolas Philibert (Etre et Avoir, Nenette) in this Guardian piece. It sums up why he is one of my favourite directors of this particular form, and why his approach stands apart from the conventional methodology. Of course his films are shaped and constructed, but Philibert always relishes ambiguity, and invites the audience to actively participate in constructing their narrative(s).

Some of the most rewarding cinema has this sense of exploration, of being open to possibilities not yet imagined. As Philibert says:-

Put simply, I make a film in order to understand why I wanted to make a film…We make films from our subconscious and there’s no way of anticipating what they will provoke in the minds of others.

I loved Senna, but it is the more elusive films of Philibert that I keep returning to.


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