British filmmaker Asif Kapadia’s third in the trilogy of documentaries, Diego Maradona, on the Argentinian football legend Diego Maradona, premiered earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival. In many ways it carries forward from his previous work — Amy (2015, on singer Amy Winehouse) and Senna (2010, on racing champion Ayrton Senna)—in showing the schism between the individual and her/his public persona, the trade-off for fame and the flip side of success.
Born in 1972, Kapadia shot into limelight with The Sheep Thief (1997) that bagged Cinefondation’s second prize for short films at the Cannes Film Festival. It led him on to make his first feature, The Warrior, starring Irrfan Khan, that won him the BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) for the best British film and for the most promising newcomer.
The four-time BAFTA (best documentary for Senna and Amy) and one-time Oscar winner (best documentary feature for Amy) was in Mumbai and Delhi, promoting his latest documentary that is releasing this Friday by PVR Pictures across India. Edited excerpts from an interview with Namrata Joshi.
There’s this line in the film that states that Diego has nothing to do with Maradona and yet Maradona travels with him everywhere. His coach also talks about how Maradona is a creation behind which Diego hides his insecurities. Was this ambiguity in his personality—a charismatic guy who is also very complicated and yet vulnerable—made you choose him to be the subject of your documentary?
I didn’t know any of that before I made the film. That all came out of the process of researching it, making it, talking to people and seeing the footage. I knew he was a great footballer and that there was a lot of material that nobody had seen before. I knew a bit of his life story by reading a particular book when I was a student, back in the 90s, at the film school. What is in the film came out in the process of making it. I didn’t go in there knowing any of that. I never do. I don’t really do a lot of research before I make a movie. During the movie is when I get into it.
Then what was it about Maradona that made you pick him? Or for that matter Amy or Senna?
Part of it is the gut feeling, the instinctive feeling that there is a movie in this person. Or there is a question that I want answered. Or there is a new idea. Senna came first, it was a totally different film from anything I had done before. I had never made a documentary before. I do love sports. I do remember him, I do remember watching him race. I remember the final race [he died in 1994 at the San Marino Grand Prix, Imola Italy], watching it live. The big thing there became this idea of telling a story and changing the form. The idea of not having ‘talking head’ interviews. Staying in the present and somehow finding Senna. Finding a way for Senna to narrate his own story. I am sure someone must have done it but I wasn’t aware of someone ever having done something like that. That process of breaking the rules of it and making a new way of working I’ve always been interested in.
I tried to do that with The Warrior, my first feature. This idea of a British film not in English, set in India yet not a typically Indian film. Senna was an idea like that. The idea of having a racing driver. Who cares about racing drivers? They run around in circles really fast. Who cares? Wearing a helmet, you can’t even see his face. Somehow if you can make that emotional and moving then it would have been an achievement. I like the challenge of something that is potentially really hard to do. Getting people who are not interested in racing watch a film about a racing character. They are amazing characters, interesting people to understand who happen to express themselves by racing or playing football. The reason I made the films is because of the characters. I guess they are flawed, complex, edgy and often anti-establishment. They are the people I am interested in.
Does any Indian personality intrigue you?
He is not Indian but the person I grew up watching is Imran Khan. What an amazing guy! Such a good looking, charming man. He had such an interesting journey. In terms of Indian I don’t know, I don’t really have an answer.
As a filmmaker are you looking for a defining theme in a person’s life?
You look for ways to express bigger ideas. [Maradona] is about a footballer but it is also about a family, where he is from, rising from the slums, Italy, Naples, the racism within the country, the idea of North against the South or the idea of getting revenge on another country the humiliated you in [the Falklands War] four years earlier. The game, is his way of making the English suffer. Not being a parent, having a child and not admitting it to yourself. That’s where his addictions come from. [The] poorest city in Europe that somehow finds the money to get the most expensive player in the world.
The person and his calling. How do you strike a balance there? The film is not about his game and yet it is.
I don’t know if it works or not but the intention is that football is really there to express the character. So Amy’s songs are there to express something about her character. The car, races are there revealing something about him [Senna]. The whole thing is really more about finding visual ways to express. He is a street guy. Maradona, comes from a tough, poor place, ends up in Naples, hangs out with all the street guys. When he plays football it’s up his street though. They kick him and so he kicks them back. One of my favourite lines in the film, is when he says that football is a game of deceit. The idea of trickery, living life in hiding or lying, that’s him. On the pitch, off the pitch, that’s the kind of persona he is.
I may not be a great football or Maradona fan but the film reaches out to me. Then there are fans who’d know everything about him. Where do you find the balance between these two audiences?
I am more interested in someone like you who doesn’t like football than people who are obsessed with it, who think they know it all but actually they don’t. You have got to put the key moments in the life rather than it becoming pure football. That’s why we spend years editing to hopefully find the right amount of football against life and drama. If it’s too much one thing or another then it narrows down how widely people would want to see it. Of course there is a football audience, there’s a big Maradona audience out there all over the world but I am interested in people who don’t like football, watching the film and learning about an interesting character. In the end why I made [the films] is because they are all [about] interesting people. The idea was to understand and to humanise them.
Talking of the audience… What about Maradona himself? Has he seen it?
I don’t think he has seen it. I have tried to talk to him for a long time. He has always been travelling or too busy. Tuesday the film came out in the US on HBO, Wednesday it came out in Latin America DirecTV. So chances are that he will have watched it now. When I invited him to Cannes, he didn’t come. At some point he will watch it, privately probably, because everyone else has been talking about it. I will hear about it when he writes back. There will be an Instagram message and that’s when we will all find out.
Are you looking forward to it? Apprehensive about it?
All I can say is that enough people who know him, have seen the film say that the film is really honest. It is tough at times but it is honest. He is a really tough character to pin down, he is a really difficult guy to get to know and get close to and to get to talk about stuff. One is not interested in making a film where you’d say everyone is great because that would be a lie.
He did give you a lot of access…
I met him four or five times. Nine hours in total.
Going back to your craft itself. No talking heads, no testimonies to the camera. Even Maradona comes as a voiceover.
I like to tell the story in the moment. The story in this case is about the 80s and Naples and I don’t really think that it’s interesting to see someone sitting in front of some bookcase now and telling me about the 80s. I believe in showing you what it was back then and anyone who tells you anything should only add to that story. I like living in the past. I don’t see anyone getting old. I have a psychological issue. So, for that reason I can’t put a camera on them.
Sourcing footage and then putting it together…What was longer? What took more of an effort?
The whole thing took three years. It all happens at the same time. We do research, in the process find the story and characters. I do interviews. I spoke to 80 people on this film, including Maradona. We are editing at the same time and then as we are editing we are looking for new footage.
How much footage did you have?
Thousands of hours. These days it’s hard to tell because it’s all terrabytes; it’s on the hard drive. Once you digitise it, you don’t really count the minutes.
We are writing it as we are researching it, as we are doing the interviews, as we are editing it. That’s the big difference from how I worked before in fiction. You write the script, cast the film, raise the money, shoot and edit it. In this case, we start editing at the beginning to look at the material and then we look for more and we talk to someone, do more research and edit more. So everything is much more organic. I like it because it is more organic.
Does the story keep changing as you move along?
Yes. That’s the whole point. You think the story is something about this and someone says something and you realise it’s about that. And then you begin to find ways to show it. You look for that material and realise there is another character. And you go ‘no no no’ the story is about this. Things are constantly shifting.
But when I see the film I find the theme of his life is so sharp…
You get there eventually. Brilliant editor, brilliant team work. It’s not sharp. At the beginning. It’s a mess. Bit by bit, by bit it’s about reducing to find the essence. And then you become clear about what you are trying to say, and what the idea is by talking to a lot of people and seeing lots of footage. And then form your opinion, and you say ‘ok now we are going to carry this story out’. This is what we want the audience to think and feel.
How many people worked with you in sourcing footage and researching?
There were two main archive producers—one in Spanish language and one Italian. Then more people in each country, then there’s the editor, two producers. There is the sound team. When the material comes a lot of it is mute so you have to create the entire soundtrack. A lot of these people did Senna, Amy and now Diego Maradona. Some of them I was at film school with so I have worked with them for a long time. Feature films [have] a smaller crew.
Is copyright [for the footage] another issue?
Every shot in the film you have to licence it and clear it. You just can’t take a shot and use it. You need to know who is holding the camera, who owns that shot and the material comes from all over the world. The job of the archive producer is to not just find the material but where the master is, who owns the master and how can we licence it and pay for it.
Any footage you got that really made you sing and dance?
I don’t know about singing and dancing but one shot towards the end of the film, after the match between Argentina and Italy, where he is all alone at a Christmas party. The shot goes on for ages. There is no sound. There is no one talking, no voice, no music. Just his face. That shot probably summed up what I was trying to do. You spend all the time looking at the material, until you find an image that tells you everything, without anyone having to tell you what to think. That is cinema. That’s the whole point why you make movies. You look through a lot of stuff to find that moment. Hopefully the story told before and after that shot needs no explanation.
What next? Will we see you making a feature likeThe Warrior again?
I need to go back to that kind of filmmaking. I need sometime to sit down and write. [The] hardest thing is writing. I need to lock myself away.