A note on ‘Senna’ and the Oscars

Posted by · 4:08 am · August 12th, 2011

Longtime Oscar-watchers know that the Academy’s documentary branch is a law unto itself: no amount of glowing reviews, previous awards, robust box office and/or pop-culture prominence is enough to secure a film a guaranteed nomination in the Best Documentary Feature race.¬†Indeed, anticipating the “surprise” snub in the branch’s series of shortlists is something of an annual pundits’ parlor game: last year, Davis Guggenheim’s popular “Waiting for Superman” was the winning/losing horse, depending on your perspective.

Still, inasmuch as one can predict these things, Asif Kapadia’s marvelous “Senna,” which I reviewed earlier this week, ticks all the boxes of an Oscar frontrunner in the category.

A rousing, emotionally rich biopic with a strong dramatic arc that makes it accessible even to those with no interest in motor sport — the latter audience representing its biggest obstacle in the States — it arrives on US screens today boasting sensational reviews (for the number obsessives, its Metacritic score currently sits 84), record-breaking UK box office and a Sundance audience award. When it comes to BAFTA night, at least, the other four documentary nominees may as well not bother turning up. (It’ll likely be a hot contender for the Best British Film prize too.)

I have, however, had some correspondence from readers concerned that one of the Academy’s many arcane eligibility rules may foul things up for the film. The rule in question — that any film constructed wholly from archive material cannot compete for the award — has reportedly disqualified such outstanding contenders over the years as Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man” (though, given how much interview footage Herzog recorded for the film, I’m not sure how that computes). It would appear to affect “Senna” too, given that the film is proudly pieced together entirely from archive footage.

It’s an idiotic rule in any event — the idea that there’s no rewardable cinematic craft in editing and shaping a narrative from previously existing footage is weirdly self-defeating, not least coming from a branch of fellow documentarists — and would be a particularly asinine one applied to “Senna,” the very beauty of which stems from its present-tense unfolding without the aid of superfluous voiceover or talking heads.

Happily, the film appears to have a sufficient loophole to dodge the DQ. The film does feature a great deal of interview footage recorded specifically for the film — the only catch being that it’s present only in audio form, attached to archive video. Still, it’s new material, and Kapadia himself has apparently insisted that the film is eligible. That’s not to say voters mightn’t find another way to embarrass themselves by overlooking one of the year’s best films, but we’ll cross that bridge if we come to it.

In the meantime, do yourself a favor and see “Senna” this weekend. It’d be the week’s clear must-see even if it weren’t up against a “Glee” tie-in and one of the very worst films I saw in 2010.

→ 17 Comments Tags: , , , , | Filed in: Daily

17 responses so far

  • 1 8-12-2011 at 6:07 am

    Elton Telles said...

    “Senna” is superb. It has already hit the videostores here in Brazil, simply one of the best films released last year and I’m proud of seeing its chances for Oscars.

  • 2 8-12-2011 at 7:28 am

    Bradley said...


    In addition to Senna do you know anything about the eligibility of Life in a Day?

    Easily one of my favourite films of the year (which surprisingly has nothing to do with me having worked on it!) it seemed to suffer from lack of press coverage and cinema support having been released 2 weeks after Senna in the UK.

    Although it had exclusivity with Vue Cinemas, they had pressure from up high for more Senna screenings and due to LIAD being digital only, sacrificed screens to 3D misfires.

    Crying shame, coupled with a seeming lack of US exposure means this wonderful and unique film was barely seen.

    Due to all footage being shot for the film but in such an unorthodox way, any word on the academy blacklisting it? It’s even got an original song contender from Matthew Herbert/Ellie Goulding not to mention directed by Kevin Macdonald, a prior best doc winner.

    Although hands down Joe Walker should be considered for best editing. 80,000 hours of footage into a 90 min film!!

    Did love Senna though as well. Both Line Produced by the magnificent Ann Lynch!

  • 3 8-12-2011 at 7:31 am

    Bradley said...

    80,000 CLIPs not hours. 4,500 hours!

    Also, the 2hr40 min cut of Senna released in Brazil is much more compelling. And that’s coming from someone like me with no interest in F1!!

  • 4 8-12-2011 at 8:36 am

    Keylime said...

    Life in a Day is awful. An argument for why democratizing cinema is a bad idea. It contains the worst, most banal closing scene of the year.

  • 5 8-12-2011 at 1:02 pm

    bianca said...

    Have u seen Bill Cunningham New York yet? It’s so rare to come out of a doc feeling so GOOD. There’s no injustice or drama, just a lovely portrait of a man. I hope it gets nominated.

  • 6 8-12-2011 at 5:58 pm

    Maxim said...

    Grizzly Man is the most shallow ego-driven self-serving pseudo-documentary pos that I’ve ever had a displeasure to sit through.

    The story is sad enough, watching Herzog piss all over the film was almost as bad.

  • 7 8-12-2011 at 8:05 pm

    Rashad said...

    I couldn’t get into Senna. Maybe it was because I don’t find F1 that interesting, I don’t know.

  • 8 8-13-2011 at 5:20 am

    Eddie said...

    I hope you are right Guy! Even If “Senna” is only shortlisted by the academy people will go crazy here in Brazil. I don’t think any documentary will have had so much emotional support for a nomination, 190 million people are rooting for it!

  • 9 8-13-2011 at 10:17 am

    Brock Landers said...

    Way off topic, but here’s an awesome French poster for Carnage:


  • 10 8-13-2011 at 2:29 pm

    Speaking English said...

    There are also new “Drive” posters at impawards.com.

  • 11 8-13-2011 at 2:41 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    I personally think that Carnage poster is awful.

  • 12 8-13-2011 at 7:35 pm

    JP said...

    Very nice to see lots of Brazilians here… after Pel√©, Senna is our biggest sport’s idol ever. Unfortunatelly it’s hard to know if it’s gonna be eligible.