Jritish filmmaker Asif Kapadia grew up in north London and rose to prominence with his 2001 debut The warrior. In 2010, he directed the documentary Senna, about F1 racing driver Ayrton Senna. It was followed by the Oscar-winning portrayal of Amy Winehouse Amy (2015) and Diego Maradona (2019). Kapadia’s television work includes documentary series The me you can’t see, 1971: The year music changed everything and crime drama spirit hunter. This month, he is guest curator at Sheffield DocFest.
You’re best known these days as a documentary filmmaker, but documentaries weren’t your first love.…
I grew up watching plays and studied directing fiction. Whenever I make a film, my references are always films. So when I did Senna I thought, “It’s sunset boulevard – it’s going to be told by a character, and you don’t realize until the end that they’re dead.
What made you want to register as a guest curator at Sheffield DocFest?
It’s not just films, it’s film festivals that I love. I wouldn’t have a career without festivals. I was pitching The warrior to my producer in the bar at the Edinburgh Film Festival, and we ended up making the film. You don’t get this on an app!
Your Sheffield selection includes films about sport, music, politics, London – it almost feels like a self-portrait.
Every movie is there for a reason. I remember seeing [Patrick Keiller’s] London and not really knowing what it was: poetry, and this character traveling through the city, at one point passing through Stoke Newington, where I was living at the time. dark days [Marc Singer’s film about New York’s subterranean homeless community] brought me to tears – the idea that this city I dreamed of had an underclass living on the streets. With some of them there is a direct link in terms of how they affected me and the films I made – When we were kings [Leon Gast’s film about the 1974 Ali-Foreman fight] being the most obvious.
Your recent TV series 1971… sparked a debate about whether it was really the year in music. It featured Marvin Gaye, the stones, Gil Scott-Heron… Was there anyone else you wished you could include?
There was a whole section on Stevie Wonder that was amazing, and that didn’t end up fitting in the way we wanted. It doesn’t matter – you look at the list of artists who released albums that year; it’s incredible. If somebody wants to do a counter-series and say, “Well, this the year was better”, very good – it creates a conversation.
You have directed a few episodes of spirit hunter, about FBI agents investigating serial killers. What was it like working on a show where the master plan was presented by David Fincher and writer Joe Penhall?
It was great. [When I met David] we talked about Amy, and I said that, for me, this film was about investigating a crime – I interviewed people who were around Amy and who were somehow responsible, or not. This is what the characters of spirit hunter do: they go where someone died and they talk to people, to understand what happened, so that it doesn’t happen again.
More recently, you worked on the Apple TV+ series on mental health The me you can’t seewith Prince Harry, Oprah Winfrey and Lady Gaga.
My mother, who passed away a few years ago, had schizophrenia, so part of me thought maybe I could help. With Amy, no one at the time talked about Amy having mental health issues. It was Oprah asking me, “Would you like to do this thing?” and then met Harry, talked to him, and heard about the issues he had faced within his family. Then Covid came and everybody dealt with issues. It was a good time to talk about this subject.
You also just made a dance movie, Creaturewith the choreographer Akram Khan.
It’s a bit of Frankensteinit’s a little [Georg Büchner’s play] Woyzeck, about a person who goes crazy and gets dragged into a military society and falls in love. It was a crazy experience working with dancers and Akram – they had created this show but couldn’t perform it due to lockdown. He will be seen later this year.
You recently tweeted about a new project, dealing with “the state of the world: politics, environment, corruption, technology, race and more”.
It’s been on my mind for a while – since Brexit, and working in America during Trump’s election and thinking, ‘How come overt racists keep being staged? Question time“It’s global, because of things I’ve seen in India and Brazil – it’s a crazy project trying to connect all the dots.
You are very active on Twitter – recently posting about the events of the Champions League final in Paris.
I was there – I saw what happened and I heard the French politicians accuse the fans. They gassed children, old people, disabled people, then they turned around and blamed [them]. So how else can you complain? That’s why there are videos – whether it’s a shooting, the police doing something, or politicians lying, people are like, ‘At least I can air this and somebody one might see it as evidence.” I’m a fan [of social media]. At least it gives people a voice.
You have worked on series for Netflix and Apple, how do you think the culture of streaming affects cinema?
For me, cinema remains the ultimate. I’ve never been someone who relaxed by coming home and turning on the TV. I find it hard to sit and watch without checking my phone. I’m the problem, which is why I like going to the movies and having to turn off my phone.
A documentary journey with Asif Kapadia is part of Sheffield DocFestJune 23-28