Asif Kapadia: the director who reinvented the documentary
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Asif Kapadia is in limbo. He has been here before. The director of seven feature films, his last — Amy, the tragic story of the late singer Amy Winehouse — won the 2016 Oscar for Best Documentary. The documentary he made before that, Senna, was a phenomenon.
Now, his next is about to be released — Diego Maradona, a biography of the eternal boy genius of Argentine football. Limbo is what he calls this stage of a film, where the only people to see it have been “vested interests” — industry professionals, attendees of the Cannes festival.
“It’s a lonely moment. Everyone else has left and got another job, and you’re holding the film, basically unemployed. Waiting for the audience. Wondering, ‘What now?’”
If the film takes off — early reviews have been strong — he will be talking about it publicly until next year’s awards ceremonies. This too is tricky for Kapadia, naturally open and occasionally mischievous.
There has already been a whisper of trouble.
When we meet in London, he is just back from CPH:DOX, the Copenhagen documentary festival, where he gave a masterclass to film-makers and students. In passing, he mentioned rejecting a “big number” from a streaming platform to back the Maradona project. The detail leaked, made trade-paper headlines and has, in turn, caused jitters in the team promoting the film.
“This part of the process is people trying to manage everything.” He smiles and rolls his eyes. “This was unmanaged.”
We have met at his publicists’ office in the King’s Cross redevelopment in north London. Kapadia grew up a bus ride away in Hackney. He still lives close enough to qualify as local. On the pristine walkways outside, he passes unnoticed, a slightly built man of 47, his hair flecked with grey.
At events such as CPH:DOX he is revered as a trailblazer. In his documentaries, Kapadia uses neither talking heads nor — he winces at the thought — his own face before the camera. “If you’re seeing me, I’m taking you out of the film.” Instead, his palette is strictly archive — camcorder snippets, TV news, forgotten Saturday-night light-entertainment specials, collaged to tell their own story.
Diego Maradona is made the same way, a saga of a life told in just over two hours. Early cuts hovered at five. “It’s a complicated story to sum up,” Kapadia says.
In response, he decided to focus on the years in which his subject played for Napoli in Italy’s Serie A, taking in the hyper-dramatic World Cups of 1986 and 1990 with Argentina. The football history is impossibly rich, but Kapadia’s knack is drawing out the themes beneath — national identity, spectacular fame.
The arc is more complex than Winehouse’s or racing driver Ayrton Senna’s, however, ending not with heartbreak and death but Maradona’s own long limbo post-retirement. Controversy may await the release. Cocaine and the Camorra crime syndicate have starring roles, and Maradona is yet to see the film.
“I want him to see it with an audience,” Kapadia says. “He needs love, and the audience can give him that. Show it to someone like him alone and they don’t know what to think.”
If the archive tells all on screen, Kapadia himself relies on interviews to uncover the story; he has a flair for convincing people to speak to him. Maradona was persuaded by his daughters that this portraiture was an honour. “And he liked the idea an Oscar winner wanted to make a film about him, ” Kapadia says.
The mechanics were predictably fraught. Where possible, Kapadia picked his moments, trying to schedule meetings at Maradona’s house in Dubai when the mood might be tranquil. Last summer, he was offered the chance to travel to Russia to interview him again during the World Cup. Amid reports of a meltdown — public intoxication, offensive gestures — Kapadia passed. “It wasn’t going to help anyone, me included.”
Despite the difference in the fates of his subjects, the new film completes what Kapadia sees as a trilogy. Senna clashed with Formula One authorities; Winehouse was an old soul adrift in 21st-century Camden. And Maradona? “If Diego isn’t an outsider to start with, he’ll make himself one. These are films about people outside a system. I know it keeps popping up in my films. You’re not quite right. You don’t quite fit.”
In 1984, when Maradona moved to Naples from Barcelona, Kapadia was 12. He played a lot of football too, though rather than the Stadio San Paolo, his games took place on Stoke Newington Common. He and his friends, working-class kids from immigrant families, named themselves after the Brazilian World Cup squad of two years earlier: Zico, Éder, Sócrates. They played before school, at lunchtime, after school. Going to matches was unheard of.
“Football grounds in the 80s were not great places to be as a brown-skinned kid whose best mate was a Jamaican kid,” he recalls. “And we didn’t have any money!”
His parents arrived in Britain from Gujarat, India, in a World Cup year — 1966. Initially, they settled in Yorkshire but moved to Hackney before he was born in 1972, the youngest of five children. The family were Muslim but not particularly devout. For a while Kapadia attended the mosque on Cazenove Road, among the synagogues of the long-established Hasidic Jewish community. The family home was in a nearby terrace. His mother worked as a machinist, his father as a postman, based at the giant Mount Pleasant sorting office. On weekends he ran market stalls too, selling T-shirts in Petticoat Lane.
The 12-year-old Kapadia felt, he says now, confused. “About where I belonged. What I was.” The beginnings of an answer came at Homerton House School, a comprehensive of 2,000 boys. “Kids from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh. Seven different Caribbean islands. French. German. Irish. And by 16, we all knew and respected that, actually, everyone is from somewhere else.”
Discussing Homerton House — closed in 2007 — Kapadia is joyful. “I’d take my packed lunch on a school trip and it’d be a chicken chapatti, grease everywhere, and someone would say, ‘That’s disgusting!’ I’m like, ‘Have a bite.’ Then it was, ‘Can your mum make me some?’ That was us. How we rolled.”
By 1990, Maradona was preparing to defend the World Cup in Italy. Kapadia had already left school. Friends explored options. “A couple got jobs at C&A. A couple went in the army. A couple [were] trying to be rappers.” He worked for his father in Petticoat Lane, until he was sacked (“for laziness”).
But the cultural melee of early 1990s London could throw up unlikely opportunities for a game teenager with a driving licence. He helped a Channel 4 talk show find young Asian guests. That led to an invitation to drive the van on a film shoot in Cornwall. “I was terrified,” he says. “What did I know about the rest of England? But the set was love at first sight. Being in the middle of nowhere in the rain with a bunch of strangers, and by the end you’re family.”
Cinema had not figured in his childhood. “I knew nothing about it. Never saw Star Wars.” A double life took shape.
Returning to education, he had periods of study at the Royal College of Art and elsewhere, supported at first by “actual grants”. He fell for film in its highest form, the grand minimalism of Robert Bresson, the lush Vietnamese tableaux of Tran Anh Hung. And he started paying the bills working in the lairy sandpit of 1990s youth TV. He got a job on a late-night show at Carlton, his time overlapping with David Cameron’s — the future Conservative prime minister was the company’s director of corporate affairs.
Not yet 25, Kapadia was making good money, renting a flat in upmarket Primrose Hill. Then he quit. “I just couldn’t make lots of things quickly and badly. My friends thought I was mad.”
Another epiphany came when he visited India for the first time. In Gujarat, he expected to discover his identity at last. He did. “I realised I was a Londoner. Because I get there and think, ‘OK, finally I look like everybody else.’ And everybody else says, ‘Where are you from then?’” He considered the number 73 bus from the West End to Hackney, the dozen languages heard en route. “This was still a time when everyone thought Hackney was poor, dangerous, horrible. Nobody wanted those town houses then. And when I got back, I remember thinking so clearly, ‘I love this place.’”
Eager to direct “real films”, Kapadia returned to India not seeking a homecoming but a location. He made The Sheep Thief, his RCA graduation short, in Rajasthan. (The art director was Victoria Harwood; the two would later marry.) The film made a stir among critics and executives, as did his debut feature, The Warrior, again shot in India, a classical epic about a feudal swordsman.
The Warrior was nominated as the British entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar — then disqualified. Hindi, an unhappy Kapadia was told, was not an indigenous British language. While the decision was down to the Academy, it seemed to reflect uncertainty too in the UK film business about where to put this gifted square peg. (Even now, he keeps his views about some of the British industry off the record.)
What no one expected was a documentary. The idea for Senna came from James Gay-Rees, a producer Kapadia had met in his early days in TV. While Kapadia knew little about Formula One, the project caught him at the right moment. After The Warrior came Far North, another timeless arthouse fable, shot in the Arctic. It had drawn the audience that timeless arthouse fables tend to, leaving Kapadia debating the point of making films no one saw. Harwood, meanwhile, was expecting their first child.
In a Soho edit suite, he reviewed endless footage of Senna’s races and TV appearances on old U-matic tapes. It was his “eureka”. There was enough story here without a voiceover or talking heads. More than that, the film could be better that way, a purer telling.
“It was a tough sell within the industry. A lot of people thought it would be a disaster. But my instinct was this could be good. Original.” He vowed the result would be cinematic. “I thought, ‘I refuse to do the sound mix where they do Ready Steady Cook. And if I fail, I’ll fail spectacularly.’”
The result was cinema and then some. Stripped of the usual documentary trappings, Senna’s life and death had dizzying emotional power. The film became a surprise international hit. In Britain, it was a sensation. Screenings brought together cinephiles, Top Gear fans lured by the endorsement of Jeremy Clarkson, Brazilian émigrés and pretty much everyone else. “I’d do Q&As and cinema owners would say” — he gestures to an imaginary packed house — “‘These people never come.’”
For Kapadia, Senna marked a clear Before and After. The same archive techniques shaped Amy. Memories of the singer’s death in 2011 were still raw when he researched the film. When it came out, Winehouse’s garrulous father Mitch was enraged by what he saw as bias against him, as he made plain to the press.
At Q&As, Kapadia would wait for the inevitable question about Mitch Winehouse. “You had to be so careful, because if you misspoke you put more oxygen under it.”
Journalists have always liked Kapadia, finding him accessible and unaffected. But if the line between journalism and documentary is fuzzy, so is that between documentary and fiction.
“I never saw Senna as a step back. People ask, ‘What do you do if you’re only using archive?’ But the idea that, as a director, you’re behind the camera for every shot is rubbish. Finding the right piece of archive isn’t so different. What matters is your fingerprint.”
Thirteen years after The Warrior was denied an Oscar, Kapadia finally got one for Amy. Asked how it felt, he covers his face. “If I’m honest, I’ll sound like I’m complaining. The truth is, what I remember is going to the Vanity Fair Oscar party. If you make documentaries, they only let you in if you’ve won.” The car to the party filled up with an entourage. “And I thought, ‘I wish I was walking in the front door in London and giving my kids a cuddle.’”
Early in his career, Kapadia just wanted to make more films. In the wake of Senna, a bigger picture emerged. “I didn’t see a penny afterwards. What happens to directors is, ‘You’re lucky to have a job.’” Alongside Gay-Rees, he set up the production company On the Corner, named for the Miles Davis album, but whose office also stands on the literal junction of two main roads not far from where his father worked at Mount Pleasant. The company produced both Amy and Diego Maradona, films Kapadia says he wouldn’t have felt comfortable making for anybody else. (His next project is still undecided — after we meet, he leaves for Los Angeles to discuss exactly that — but On the Corner will remain at the centre of his future.)
Little in football inspires such mysticism as the number 10, especially when the player is a kid from a Buenos Aires slum who, the legend goes, simply gave natural genius free rein. In fact, the film makes clear, Maradona was fiercely attuned to personal development, hiring a trainer to prepare to compete at altitude at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. “You know what? He’s intelligent! He thinks! That’s why he leaves [midfielder] Peter Reid like a statue in the England game.”
Directors often mine their own life stories, yet Kapadia has never made a film about, for instance, growing up Asian in 1980s Hackney. His signature is different.
Two summers ago, he says, he went to an exhibition of American printmaking at the British Museum. There was some Lichtenstein, some Warhol. “And I remember thinking, ‘Oh.’” His voice becomes matter-of-fact. “I think this is what I am. I’m a version of a pop artist, taking this thing we’ve known about for ever and making people look at it in a way which catches them by surprise. So yes, I make films about pop stars and footballers and racing drivers. But actually there are always these weirdly profound stories — all tied up with this one person.”
‘Diego Maradona’ is released June 13
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