Senna, Amy and Diego Maradona director, Asif Kapadia, was awarded the BBC Grierson Trustees’ Award this month. Tim Dams finds out what’s next

Born in 1972 in Hackney, London, Asif Kapadia studied filmmaking at the Royal College of Art where he first gained recognition with his short film, The Sheep Thief (1997). His debut film The Warrior won best British film and best debut film at the BAFTAs.

But it is his documentaries for which Kapadia is best known. His acclaimed trilogy Senna, Amy, and Diego Maradona focus on the rise and fall of child geniuses and the price of fame. Amy won the Oscar for best documentary feature in 2016.

“His films aren’t just a hit with reviewers, but audiences too – making him Britain’s biggest box-office-breaking documentarian,” says Lorraine Heggessey, chairman of The Grierson Trust, which honoured him with its prestigious BBC Grierson Trustees’ Award at the 2020 British Documentary Awards.

Kapadia is currently directing and executive producing an Apple TV documentary series with executive producers Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry focusing on mental health and well-being. And he recently announced a move into XR filmmaking, creating a short film about Laika, the Russian space dog.

On his documentary technique

“I’m grateful and excited [for the BBC Grierson Trustees’ Award] because there is always this feeling that you’re a bit of an outsider, you’re sort of visiting a genre. I didn’t grow up wanting to make documentaries. For me, they are films. I always wanted to make films that would affect and emotionally engage an audience.

I never wanted my documentary work to be somehow second grade. I use the same crew on my fiction films as I would on my documentaries. I put as much effort into both. The sound, the music, the editing – everything technically has to be as good as it can.

Sometimes it’s healthy for an outsider to come into an industry and to shake it up a little bit. When I made Senna, I’d never really made a documentary. I had an idea of how I felt we could do the film, and a lot of very seasoned filmmakers in the genre said ‘that’s not a doc. All you’re doing is editing someone else’s footage’.

Senna, Amy and Diego Maradona were a trilogy of films of a certain style. They weren’t conventional docs. They didn’t have interviews. They were archive based, but I wanted them to feel like they were fiction films. I wanted them to play like drama.

Even now I meet people who look at the films and they go, ‘So when did you shoot that?” They think I was following Diego, Ayrton Senna or Amy. My technique was that I wanted myself as a director to be invisible. If I’m making a fiction film, I don’t want the audience every few minutes to think, ‘Oh, look, who has made the film, he’s in it, you can hear his voice.’”

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Jon Creamer