Asif Kapadia never intended to become one of the world's greatest documentary directors. After graduating from the Royal College of Art in London, he made two critically acclaimed, but seldom seen, feature films in the shape of The Warrior (2001) and Far North (2007).
It was Senna, Kapadia's 2010 documentary on the life and death of the famous Brazilian Formula One champion Ayrton Senna, that really brought the British filmmaker mainstream attention, as it achieved the highest grossing opening weekend for a documentary in the history of British cinema. But that was eclipsed five years later by Amy, in which Kapadia focused on the career and tragic death of British singer Amy Winehouse.
Kapadia is understandably proud of the work he has done in the genre, but it still gripes when people refer to him as a documentarian. "I am like, 'I am a film director.' It jars still," he tells The National. "Because, in my mind, I make movies. I have always wanted to make movies for the big screen and I have always made international films, in interesting places, and with interesting characters."
For Kapadia, who shot The Warrior in India and Far North in the Arctic, his approach and intent as a director hasn't changed since he began making documentaries. Instead, by making sure that Senna, Amy, and his latest film, Diego Maradona, are all, by Kapadia's estimation, "as cinematic and visual as possible", he has changed the genre itself.
Blurring the lines between documentary and drama
With all three films, Kapadia says he wanted to blur the lines "between documentary, drama and naturalism". This meant avoiding any use of talking heads, a tired trope of documentaries that involves someone merely being shown speaking in an interview and simply giving information. By contrast, Kapadia and his team focused their attention on research and finding as much material as possible.
"Technically the footage isn't perfect, which is something I always strived for when directing," he says. "But along the way I let my pursuit of visual detail go and trusted that the emotion of the moment with Senna, Amy and Maradona was more important."
Kapadia says his job is to make the audience "relax and not be obsessed with the quality of the image". That allows the audience to become fully immersed in the fact they are watching a real person on screen and that the story being portrayed really happened. "This means it makes a much deeper emotional impact because these people are not lying," Kapadia says.
When they found resonant footage, Kapadia and his team worked on the "score and sound design" to make the clip more cinematic, before going through the hours and hours of footage they had acquired to find the right piece of dialogue so their subjects could narrate their own stories.
For Senna and Amy, Kapadia says that meant using archival footage and interviews of the subjects of the documentaries to drive the story and inject the emotion and passion they were feeling at the time the footage was recorded. But since Argentinian former footballer Maradona is still alive, Kapadia had the chance to speak to one of the world's greatest players. However, interviewing Maradona proved to be more challenging and difficult than first anticipated.
Kapadia cannot speak Spanish or Italian, the only two languages Maradona speaks, while he had no idea how much of his extraordinary career Maradona remembers or if the former Napoli striker would even be willing to talk to him. Kapadia's past documentary work proved key. Not only is Maradona a huge fan of Senna, but he was impressed that Amy won the Oscar for Best Documentary, Feature in 2016.
Maradona agreed to three interviews over nine hours with Kapadia in Dubai, where Maradona lived during his time as manager of Fujairah FC. But after Kapadia arrived in the UAE with a crew for his first week of filming, the Argentine "just kept cancelling". "It was such a waste of money," Kapadia admits.
Unbowed, the filmmaker changed his approach and the next time he arrived in Dubai, he didn't bring an entourage. Instead, it was simply Maradona, Kapadia and his microphone. "I was invited to his home. Bit by bit he would start to talk and he was charming, very down to earth. His memory was good. I tried to take him to places he had never been and talk about stuff he'd never talked about and that is what happened."
But despite the need for live translation and Maradona appearing to lose focus after about 90 minutes, the director succeeded in having the former footballer talk about his interactions with the Italian mafia, his relationship with his children, his addiction to drugs and winning Serie A with Napoli, an unfancied team at the time. Twice.
What’s next for Asif Kapdia?
Kapadia says he does not plan to make another documentary for the foreseeable future. "I want to go back to fiction," he says. But he is adamant he only wants to do so if he can incorporate the "organic process and creative freedom" that he has been given on his most recent projects. "If I do fiction, I only want to do it in the way I have been making these documentaries."
Kapadia already has his eye on what he describes as a cinematic hybrid that will "blend drama and documentary" together. The project sounds particularly timely, as he wants "to do something on the state of politics across the world and the rise of the far right", while also relating it to the past.
That subject matter is deeply personal to Kapadia. "I'm a Londoner. Everyone I grew up with spoke more than one language, came from somewhere else and brought something to the UK," he says. "So this idea that they're now being told, 'You actually don't belong here. Go back to where you came from' – it is shocking. Whatever your job is, it is time to speak up and say, 'This is not good, this is not healthy and we do not agree with what our politicians are trying to do in the name of so-called democracy.'"
Considering what he has achieved with the documentary genre, Kapadia isn't only the perfect director to try to make sense of the current political climate, he might actually be able to cut through the mire, connect and make an impact, too.
Diego Maradona is screening at Cinema Akil in Al Quoz, Dubai, from Friday, September 13, until Saturday, September 28. More information is available at www.cinemaakil.com